Room at the Top: A New Direction for Gifted Education? (Part One)

This two-part post is a review and a critique of ‘Room at the Top: Inclusive Education for High Performance’, a Policy Exchange publication written by Deborah Eyre in April 2011.

Policy Exchange is a centre-right think tank in the UK. Deborah Eyre is Education Director with Nord Anglia Education, a UK-based company that operates twelve international schools and a range of learning services in the UK, Asia and the Middle East. These include a contract with the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, a substantial gifted education programme in Saudi Arabia.

From 2002 to 2007 Eyre was Director of England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY). ‘Room at the Top’ draws significantly on her experience in that role and, subsequently, as an education consultant working particularly in the Far and Middle East.

The problem that the paper seeks to address is how to maximise the proportion of high performing learners in an education system, specifically the English education system.

I should say at the outset that I support entirely the broad thrust of the central argument. Many of the core messages are consistent with the views expressed on this blog over the past year.

I also have some fairly significant reservations about certain aspects of the treatment. I want to return to those in the second half of this post, but first I shall do my best to summarise the document, interspersing a commentary which raises these and several less substantive issues.

The Premiss

‘Room at the Top’ argues that parallel debates about improving system-wide performance and about supporting the most able pupils have mostly failed to connect with each other.

The former has neglected the latter, concentrating over-much on structures, while the latter has been preoccupied with ‘identifying a fixed and relatively small cohort with the ability to achieve… advanced levels of cognitive performance’, an approach which is unworkable.

A larger proportion of learners has the potential to achieve these advanced levels of cognitive performance but this demands consistently higher expectations and systematic nurturing of all learners, so improving system-wide performance.

The report has two broad recommendations:

  • That the English system is too preoccupied with achieving floor targets and mediocrity. Structural reforms are needed to the national curriculum, qualifications, the OFSTED inspection framework and performance tables to ensure we prioritise and celebrate high performance.
  • That the gifted and talented agenda has become marginal in many schools, but can be main-streamed by expecting high performance on advanced learning opportunities as the norm. This should be via a blend of in-class and school-based enrichment activities, as well as a range of informal learning opportunities.

Three paradigms of Gifted Education

‘Room at the Top’ charts three broad phases, or paradigms, in the development of gifted education over the past century.

First, a ‘Unique Individual Paradigm’, in place up to middle of last century, focused on a small number of unique individuals. The initial view was these few individuals had no relevance for thinking about education systems as a whole. There was no appreciation that giftedness could be influenced or developed.

Second, a ‘Cohort Paradigm’, surviving until the end of last century, which concentrated on identifying and selecting groups of gifted learners from amongst the general school population. Identification strategies developed from the use of IQ tests, introduced in the 1920s.

It was undertaken in the belief that these learners were different from their peers and so would benefit from being educated differently. At the same time, the cohort itself was assumed to be relatively homogeneous, with common learning needs.

This paradigm is associated with selective education as well as gifted programmes. There are significant benefits for those selected, relative to those who are not.

Third, a ‘Human Capital Paradigm’, introduced at the start of this Century, which switched focus to the educational conditions in which giftedness could be optimally developed.

This change is associated with a questioning of the assumptions underpinning selection, since:

  • longitudinal studies of high-performing adults demonstrate that they were rarely outstanding as children, casting doubt on the value of early identification;
  • there is a consistent bias within cohorts towards the affluent middle classes, although the few selected from poorer backgrounds achieve social mobility as a consequence;
  • beliefs about the nature of giftedness have shifted away from heredity and a single measure of intelligence. The majority now hold that it is a complex blend of nature and nurture, includes a motivational element and is not straightforwardly measurable;
  • research suggests that gifted learners deploy exactly the same learning strategies as their peers, only do so more creatively, implying that gifted education methods can potentially be applied universally;
  • labelling learners as gifted is perceived as unhelpful, if not for gifted learners then for those without the label, affecting their confidence and narrowing their learning horizons.

The ‘human capital paradigm’ is not primarily concerned with identifying gifted learners, but with the systematic nurturing of high potential across the system, by setting high expectations for all learners while also ‘encouraging excellence among any emerging elite performers’.

This nurturing process is undertaken in specific domains, in recognition that high performance is achieved in an individual’s specific areas of strength.

It works backwards from the ultimate goal – what is required to achieve expertise in the relevant domain – aiming to give learners the right blend of opportunities, support and encouragement to work towards that objective.

Some use ‘giftedness’ to describe the outcome of this process (as opposed to the starting point) or it can be called ‘high performance’ as it is throughout this publication.

The implications of the ‘human capital paradigm’ for education systems are that:

  • an (internationally) agreed definition of giftedness is no longer necessary;
  • it is unnecessary to pin down a cohort since the focus is on nurturing high performance in as many learners as possible;
  • this should be undertaken daily in the normal classroom through curriculum, pedagogy and a culture of high expectations;
  • the learner, his parents and mentors have a significant role alongside that of the school.

Unfortunately, while researchers have been influenced by developments in psychology and neuroscience, the public and policy makers alike remain stuck in the first of the two outdated paradigms.

Commentary I

The analysis raises several questions, such as whether:

  • Inclusion in a gifted cohort and entry to a selective school can be treated as two sides of the same coin in all respects. The latter denotes entirely separate education, normally for the duration of secondary schooling. The former does not typically involve separate education and is not necessarily a fixed, permanent arrangement.
  • Labelling can be avoided entirely in any approach, including the human capital paradigm, where excellence is recognised and celebrated. (The author argues later that learners should not be protected from over-demanding learning challenges. Much the same argument might be applied to labelling, since accepting there is always someone cleverer than you may be a valuable lesson in realism rather than a demotivating influence, especially if you know that the label isn’t necessarily denied you in future.)
  • The domain-specific approach of ‘expertise in development’ is an essential pre-requisite for the human capital paradigm. There is no clear justification for the relationship in the text – and it is hard to see the relevance of school subject expertise in strict human capital terms, since it is pretty unlikely that the learner will pursue the same field into undergraduate study and subsequent employment. Generic skills are surely more important, especially for younger learners in primary schools;
  • The distinction between enlightened researchers on one hand and gullible public and policy-makers on the other is quite as clear-cut as the text suggests. After all, there are still many academic apologists for the ‘cohort paradigm’ , as well as several more forward-thinking policy-makers!

Four Principles of a Human Capital Strategy

One can increase the proportion of high performers if the education system is refocused on different priorities. Four key principles are identified:

First, capitalise on any inherited predispositions. Although some learners are ‘gifted’ (ie ‘genetically predisposed to be more cognitively successful’) it is more important to develop the ability we all have rather than assessing which of us has relatively greater capability.

We do not yet fully understand the way environment impacts on inherited predispositions, but many more learners could benefit if given the opportunity. It is possible to overcome poor quality early years education and wrong to assume at any point in the education system that significant numbers of learners are unable to cope with advanced cognition.

Second, recognise the importance of families in providing a stable, encouraging environment. We need to help families to ‘nurture gifted behaviours’ by extending the benefits of parental involvement in middle class families to all learners.

Third, provide reasonable schooling. This is not as significant as the role of parents (and peers) because high performance ‘isn’t the same as being ‘school smart”. It is not just about passing exams, but also involves developing the skills that a domain-specific expert needs

Because high performance isn’t entirely dependent on the quality of schooling it is possible to compensate through parental support, personal motivation and informal learning. Hence it is not necessary to wait until all schools are high-performing.

On the other hand, good schools are typically better at facilitating high performance, so the more there are the better.

Fourth, instil a ‘growth mindset’ (the text does not actually employ this term, which is conspicuous by its absence). It is essential to help learners to understand that their educational performance lies in their hands.

While other cultures understand that trying hard is important, our practice of labelling and choosing cohorts suggests to learners that they cannot achieve beyond a certain level. Learners need to understand that their achievement is not dictated by their family background, their school, or where they live.

Commentary II

There is perhaps the basis for an equation here, parallel to that which the author herself now calls ‘the Eyre Equation’ (indeed does so earlier in this Paper):

High Performance =

(Capitalised) Inherited Ability

+ Family Support

+ (Effective) Schooling

+ Growth Mindset)

x All Learners

But the Paper is not particularly informative about the relationship between these four variables. Although it is suggested that schooling is less significant than often assumed, no empirical evidence is given to support this statement, or to quantify the relative weight attached to the other variables.

While the ideal is presumably to have all four in play, is it possible to compensate for any one that is relatively less secure? Any two? Any three? Are there essential minimum levels of given variables that need to be in place for individual high performance to have a reasonable chance of being realised?

In short, the limited treatment we are given begs many more questions.

It is surprising, too, that there is no real recognition of the sizeable potential impact of poverty on high performance, even if it is part of the hypothesis that this is too often used as an excuse. It is widely understood that the impact of poverty dwarfs the educational effects and really needs to be tackled directly.

The emphasis on keeping doors open at all stages is clearly antithetical to selection. So selective schools and ‘fixed’ gifted cohorts are inappropriate, but so is much setting practice (because the sets are too infrequently adjusted).

If we were to be purist about this it would not be acceptable to require a specified level of achievement to secure admission into a sixth form or, indeed, for admission to a given university course. While such an open access approach is laudable in theory, it is doubtful whether our education system could apply it consistently and with rigour.

This is surely more about a state of mind – and about being prepared to give learners second chances – than it is about the practical operation of the system.

Four Attitudinal Problems that England Must Overcome

The Paper identifies four sets of beliefs and assumptions that must be overcome if England is to maximise its proportion of high performing learners.

First, we hold outdated beliefs about ability and academic performance. There is still a widely-held view that ability is genetically determined, even though we also accept that there are some environmental factors in play. This belief is reinforced by putting 5-10% quotas on the gifted and talented population in schools for ‘society feels more comfortable with norm-referencing than criterion-referencing’.

Second, we mistakenly assume that we must choose between an education system focused on nurturing an elite and one that is effective for the majority. ‘We are always trying to be fair but sometimes this is at the expense of opportunity and excellence’. The political focus is on allocative fairness rather than on stretching all learners.

On the right this manifests as meritocratic fairness; on the left as ensuring that demographically representative populations get through. Both are mired in the false belief that only a fixed number can succeed.

We are preoccupied with floor targets.

‘We have created a system that requires that most pupils reach mediocrity and which asks schools to arrange their structures with this as the primary expectation’.

In an ideal world, shifting one student from A to A* would be as significant as shifting another from D to C. GCSE data is quoted showing that increases over time in the proportion of students gaining a B grade or above in each of maths and English is significantly lower than the increase in the proportion achieving a C grade.

Our broader cross-party consensus on the significance of the standards agenda in schools has outlived its usefulness, because it has become focused on raising average performance rather than encouraging more learners to reach advanced levels.

Third, we wrongly assume that large-scale social mobility is unattainable. International benchmarking studies show that our education system is relatively inequitable and we have come to believe that this is an insurmountable problem.

The demonstrable link between performance and socio-economic background has led us to conclude that learners from poor backgrounds cannot achieve highly. Schools limit opportunities, for example by restricting access to triple science, and getting a C grade represents the pinnacle of success.

Fourth, we wrongly believe we must protect learners from cognitively over-demanding work. There is a climate of false kindness in schools, but learners must be given the opportunity to try – and to fail.

Commentary III

Although a broadly accurate analysis, I would again question some of the detail:

  • I am not sure there is necessarily a logical connection between belief in genetic giftedness and a quota-based approach to gifted education. Moreover, it is wrong to suggest that quota-based populations are current Government policy, since schools are free to determine the size of their gifted and talented populations. This is evident from the very publication referenced to evidence the contrary statement in ‘Room at the Top’: ‘Identifying Gifted and Talented Learners – Getting Started (p. 1)
  • The emphasis within England’s approach to gifted education on securing G&T populations that are broadly representative in demographic terms is therefore less about allocative fairness and more about recognition that potential for excellence is found equally amongst learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and other underachieving groups. So it is consistent with the human capital paradigm and can support progress towards large-scale social mobility.
  • While there is other data to support the argument that schools have been concentrating on borderline grades at GCSE at the expense of higher grades – see for example my November 2010 post about STEM and high achievers which makes pretty much the same case – recent emphasis within our assessment processes on progression as opposed to raw attainment would suggest that this is already being addressed.
  • Similarly, the assertion that we believe social mobility to be an insurmountable problem isn’t really borne out by the emphasis given to improving it, both by the last Government and the current Coalition. Indeed, both have declared it a top priority.

Why High Performance is Important

The paper gives a brief treatment of the reasons for investing in talent: to fill talent gaps for high-level skills that are already evident and to enable England to compete in a globalised economy where highly-skilled workers are increasingly internationally mobile.

Other countries are already investing in developing their stock of high achievers and England cannot afford to lag behind. This requires a step-change rather than small-scale incremental improvement.

We should move beyond a ‘rescue mentality’ that benefits a few more disadvantaged learners. And we need to focus on competition with those in other countries rather than a ‘micro-preoccupation with who is in and who is out’.

The key to social mobility is raising our general level of expectation – in the highest-performing countries the ‘excuse’ of coming from a poor background is not accepted. Hong Kong is given as an example.

Commentary IV

This is very familiar territory for regular readers of this Blog and it would not be too difficult to strengthen the arguments in ‘Room at the Top’ by reference to the economics of gifted education, highlighting work by Hanushek et al on the economic value of cognitive development and also material about the cost of the ‘excellence gap’.

It would have been interesting and useful to have had an insight into the rationale by which different knowledge-based economies have made a link between gifted education and increasing the national supply of highly-skilled workers – and some treatment of the reasons why that connection has not been made in England.

I am not sure whether the economic arguments would justify a definition of high performance based primarily on expertise in subject domains. As we have noted already, relatively few learners study at university the subject they were best in at school and still fewer enter employment that requires expertise in the same discipline.

Moreover, HE and employers tend to be interested primarily in examination grades and (in the case of graduates) the perceived ‘quality’ of the institution at which those grades were obtained. They are engaged in ‘screening’ for the best candidates rather than worrying particularly about the value added by their education.

So far so good the, apart from some minor hiccups, but in Part Two of this post we begin to engage with the business end of ‘Room at the Top’, as well as the section – about the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth – that causes me the greatest difficulty. Stay tuned!


May 2011


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