Room at the Top – A New Direction for Gifted Education? (Part Two)

This is the concluding section of a two-part post about ‘Room at the Top‘, a Policy Exchange Publication by Deborah Eyre which makes the case for a ‘human capital’ model of gifted education that would radically increase the proportion of high-performing learners in the education system.

England’s National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY)

Eyre, who was the Director of NAGTY throughout its five year lifetime (2002-2007) argues that NAGTY was the embodiment of a model for nurturing high performance that ‘provides a potential blueprint for transforming the educational landscape’ and is being applied in several other countries.

It is said that the NAGTY student academy supported 200,000 students aged 11-19, and that it was the world’s first national centre for high [academic] performance, akin to similar sporting centres of excellence.

The student academy ‘provided a unique insight into how best to develop advanced cognitive performance in the brightest students’. (But it also relied on the cohort paradigm, selecting in a defined percentage of students against fixed criteria, which placed it out of kilter with the human capital approach.)

Meanwhile, the professional academy worked with schools to improve their in-school provision.

‘NAGTY’s main achievements were not for the cohort it served but rather the development of a much better understanding of the routes to high performance and how to maximise them in individuals in the wider education system, plus the creation of structural models that might make this realisable.’

NAGTY demonstrated:

  • How students can learn to take more control of their learning and so influence their own educational outcomes;
  • That not all learning happens in school and that well-structured informal learning can make an important contribution to high attainment.

‘The student academy created a pedagogy for out-of-school informal learning based on a set of advanced cognitive performance characteristics’.

This was built around the idea of bringing students and experts together. Its online study groups were learning communities that linked learners with academics so recreating ‘the collegiate discursive environment’.

It provided a mechanism for organisations and individuals to make a meaningful contribution to education by providing out of school learning opportunities which were ‘carefully designed to make a serious contribution to high performance’.

The best schools used this to lever up expectations and performance in their own institutions.

  • That being from a disadvantaged socio-economic background and/or attending a low-performing school doesn’t have to be a barrier to academic success. NAGTY demonstrated that social mobility is possible on a large scale.

By 2007 it had 30,000 students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds ‘destined for high academic attainment’. Once they joined this community of high achievers, these students from disadvantaged backgrounds went on to achieve highly.

  • That many schools under-estimate their students and fail to provide sufficient challenge. NAGTY students’ views chimed with those of OFSTED who found that ‘lack of intellectual challenge is a consistent feature in lessons in many schools’ – 46% of students found their work too easy and 42% found their schooling boring.

But some schools were getting this right and their practice is transferrable to others.

‘We now have, through NAGTY, a better documented understanding of what high performance looks like in practice and how to encourage it in various contexts’.

‘After five years of success NAGTY came under new management’. In the years that followed gifted education began to lose its momentum and drifted, but the lesson from NAGTY is abiding:

‘A national focus on nurturing high performance can benefit students, increase social mobility, and raise standards more quickly than the conventional standards agenda’.

Commentary V

I suspect that most independent and objective observers would regard this as an overly positive assessment of NAGTY’s actual contribution and performance between 2002 and 2007.

It took a long time to get started, as both membership and services developed relatively slowly. Moreover, there is relatively little hard data to back up the claims here about NAGTY’s impact on learner outcomes, or evidence of a methodology which isolates the impact of NAGTY from the other variables in play.

If such material did exist it would be referenced in the text of ‘Room at the Top’ – and the case for regarding NAGTY as a model to replicate would be significantly strengthened as a result.

If the statements above represent the theoretical position – at least as it has been formulated retrospectively – it is important to bear in mind that the practice fell short of this in some significant respects.

NAGTY’s record is reviewed more objectively in the Government’s independent evaluation a document that is ignored by ‘Room at the Top’, which relies instead on several publications by NAGTY’s own research arm. That in itself is telling.

Since I may not be regarded as an independent and objective observer, I will rely on the evidence in the evaluation report.

It is not easy to give a clear picture of NAGTY’s effectiveness through selective quotation from that document, so I urge serious readers to draw their own conclusions on the basis of the evaluation as a whole.

But here are some extracts that relate directly to the material summarised above. The paragraph references are included for ease of reference:

  • The total population eligible for NAGTY support was estimated at 200,000 (paras 108-9). By the end of its contract [ie 2007] NAGTY had reached, in terms of student Academy membership numbers, about 70% of this population, though it is unclear whether all of these were enrolled. The proportion of active members was also unclear but almost certainly small (paras 458-9).
  • NAGTY increased the volume and range of nationally-provided out-of-hours learning opportunities for gifted learners. By the last year of its contract it was offering over 14,000 places on various activities. But the rate of growth in activities barely kept pace with the rate of growth in membership and was never sufficient to offer all members a reasonable chance of doing something during their membership (para 446). No data was provided, but there was anecdotal evidence that most NAGTY members did nothing (para 448)
  • Feedback to schools on the activities undertaken by their students ‘was either limited or non-existent’. Lack of knowledge about who had done what meant schools were unable to build on what their pupils had undertaken and any momentum/enthusiasm could not be maintained (para 432).
  • The identification process was flawed, in that it was biased against those from lower socio-economic groups. (The GOAL programme sought to address this but the numbers benefiting were relatively small.) Moreover, the criteria did not select in those who might be excellent in a particular subject but not sufficiently good across the board (para 441).
  • With the exceptions of GOAL, financial bursaries and Aspire magazine, there was little evidence of NAGTY supporting the more rounded development of members. A careers advice service was offered at one stage but dropped owing to lack of use (para 442). The tracking undertaken was limited (para 445) as was the support offered to members and parents (para 459).
  • ‘Whether it is simply identifying a young person as being in the top 5%, as opposed to giving them NAGTY membership and access to a range of additional opportunities, which makes the difference in terms of aspirations and motivation is unclear’ (para 459).
  • Relatively few teaching professionals appear to have come into contact with NAGTY (para 504). It was not geared to have direct contact with teachers which meant that its activities had limited impact (para 505) .
  • In securing a high quality core education for gifted and talented learners, central to the ‘English model’, NAGTY was handicapped because teachers were not generally involved in its activities and it had no means of directly influencing what happened in the vast majority of schools (para 512);
  • NAGTY seemed to be focussed on building its own profile with the profession rather than acting as a development house. Trialling new ideas and then passing on those with merit to organisations better-placed to take them forward might have offered a better way forward (para 517)
  • While there is nothing to suggest bias, a degree of separation between NAGTY and its research arm would have ensured greater transparency and perceived objectivity (para 605).
  • We [the evaluators] are not persuaded that NAGTY has established itself as the key reference point for the English gifted and talented community (para 613). The Department [for Education] wanted a dispersed model rather than a single centre of expertise (para 615)
  • Overall NAGTY is something of a curate’s egg (para 701). The parts that are good relate to its core focus as provider of out-of-school activities and maintaining a high-profile for gifted learners. It was less good when it sought to depart from this.
  • There are a variety of possible ‘takes’ on whether NAGTY provided value for money. Overall the sense is that, apart from some ongoing benefits, the legacy appears thin and value for money limited (paras 901-932).

So we appear to have two different versions of reality.

It is not my intention to support one ahead of the other, but simply to state that there is substantive evidence in the public domain that should cause us to question the assertion that NAGTY successfully demonstrated how an effective national system for developing high performance might work in practice.

International Adoption of the NAGTY model

‘Room at the Top’ also asserts that some countries are successfully using the NAGTY approach as a means of achieving high performance across their education systems. Two in particular are described, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong (now part of China).

Saudi Arabia with support from McKinsey has developed the world’s most comprehensive approach to nurturing high performance and creativity.

It wants to secure ‘strong subject knowledge and the creativity that will enable innovation as well as efficiency’. It has a ‘two-pronged approach mobilising in school provision and out of school learning opportunities’, though the in-school dimension is dominant. It commissioned work to develop this approach using NAGTY as its design blueprint.

Each year a limited number of schools enters the Mawhiba Schools Partnership following a competitive process. Member schools are supported to improve their effectiveness in enhancing cognitive performance, through an ‘advanced supplementary curriculum’, professional development and support.

Schools can be accredited at Partner or Advanced Partner level and there is a similar scheme to recognise teachers who are outstanding at nurturing high performance.

Hong Kong already had a high proportion of learners with advanced subject knowledge but recognised following PISA 2006 that ‘they needed to convert that into more rounded and usable advanced cognitive performance’.

They adopted their 3-tier model of provision in 2000 and, in 2006 decided to create a Hong Kong Academy to co-ordinate informal learning activities. This:

‘organisation supported in principle by government but freed from government interference has proved a better basis for development of out-of-hours provision than the part-government directed NAGTY or its fully government-directed successor’

At this time the Fung Hong Chu centre (actually part of the Education Bureau) was made responsible for in-school provision which is beginning to focus on advanced cognitive performance.

Commentary VI

It would be easy to over-estimate the influence of the ‘theoretical’ NAGTY model on the basis of the treatment in the paper. Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong are both territories in which the author has been active as a consultant and one might reasonably expect her thinking to have had some influence.

While there is relatively little about the Saudi programme in the public domain (and I will publish a separate post about it shortly), we know that the dominant focus on in-school provision did not feature at all significantly in the NAGTY approach.

Moreover, the process that led to the development of the Saudi programme will have included an extensive literature review and rigorous sifting of evidence from practice worldwide. McKinsey would have ensured that the NAGTY approach was one of many analysed as part of the process of designing a system that would best fit Saudi needs and circumstances.

In Hong Hong, the three-tier model preceded NAGTY (and we were well aware of it as an influence on our thinking at the time NAGTY was under development). The Hong Kong Education Bureau will also have drawn on a wide range of models, including several in the United States, before deciding on the nature of their Academy.

While the thinking behind NAGTY may have had limited influence on the commitment to develop gifted education and high performance in a few of the world’s knowledge-based economies (KBEs) I can find no real evidence to suggest that it has been particularly influential. Should that evidence materialise, I stand to be corrected.

There is, unfortunately, very little information in the public domain to explain how this human capital approach to gifted education has developed in a number of KBEs, but it is much more likely to be grounded in publications by McKinsey and the OECD (including PISA) – and in an awareness of the economic arguments supporting human capital theory, which have been developing over the last 50 years.

I can see no clear relationship between that work and either the theoretical or practical manifestation of NAGTY.

It would also be good to see the evidence supporting the statement about ‘government interference’ in Hong Kong relative to England. The evaluation contains relevant observations on that subject in respect of NAGTY. I have not seen any public evaluation of Hong Kong’s Academy, let alone anything that treats its relationship with the Education Bureau and other parts of the Hong Kong Government.

In England, NAGTY and its successor enjoyed similar contractual relationships with Government. In both cases the substantial commitment of taxpayers’ money made it unthinkable that either could operate independently.

So there were the normal tensions between a contracted body that wants freedom to operate at arm’s length and a contractor that must hold it accountable for delivery of defined outcomes in return for the taxpayers’ investment.

The contractor offers ‘earned autonomy’ if the contracted body achieves the specified performance, but will ‘intervene in inverse proportion to success’ if it that is not the case.

The Proposed Solution

The Paper suggests it is advocating a different focus rather than an initiative or a programme, but also offers a series of recommendations.

At national level we should: ‘institutionalise excellence’ to help as many pupils as possible to reach high performance at 18; set clear expectations for the system in terms of outcomes and ‘reframe the national levers’ to focus on those, yet trust professionals to decide what methodologies to adopt to nurture high performance:

  • the National Curriculum should prioritise advanced subject knowledge, high level skills, ‘and the values attitudes and attributes associated with expertise in a given subject domain’;
  • the qualification system should focus on what children should achieve at 18 and there should be more opportunities to demonstrate advanced achievement, for example via extended essays;
  • there should be appropriate emphasis on high performance in the new OFSTED inspection framework;
  • targets based on borderline grades should be abolished;
  • high-level achievement should be made more transparent – eg by publishing data on the university destinations of school leavers; schools should move to a different performance measure – eg average points scored, perhaps capped; and high achievement data should be added to school performance tables

We should also enhance the significance of informal learning opportunities by accrediting providers and creating incentives for new providers to enter the system. There should be funding to support participation by learners from low income families.

And we should establish a National Centre for Advanced Performance in Education to act as a catalyst, offering advice, providing professional development and building capacity in the system.

Schools should: move away from the current marginal G&T agenda ‘with its narrow focus on small numbers of students seen as having inherited measurable characteristics’ and adopt the more contemporary human capital approach.

This does not necessarily require more resources since they would be reprioritising rather than undertaking anything new. They should offer advanced learning opportunities as the norm through classroom teaching and out-of-hours enrichment.

  • While free to decide the balance between mixed ability teaching and subject-based setting, there should be an end to ‘pitching to the middle’ and inflexible setting practices.
  • Schools should harness the support of parents and families. Each learner should have an assigned staff member responsible for coaching and monitoring their performance. Pupils should be directed to out of school informal learning opportunities and ‘schools should take some responsibility for’ securing suitable take-up.
  • Schools should reward and celebrate high achievement, developing a culture in which all pupils are encouraged to take responsibility for their work and ‘habits of success’.

Commentary VII

Despite the assertion to the contrary, these recommendations do read suspiciously like an initiative. If we take the opening statement at face value, then some explanation is needed as to why England does not need a holistic programme while other countries – such as Saudi Arabia – clearly do.

Despite the earlier statements about the relative insignificance of schooling relative to families, informal learning and a ‘growth mindset’, it is not entirely consistent that the bulk of these recommendations are targeted at schools.

There is no recognition in the recommendations – or indeed throughout the paper – of the different needs of the primary and secondary sectors respectively. It is not clear to what extent the treatment should be regarded as applying to both.

The reference to curricular and qualifications reforms would be entirely consistent with the adoption of a Singapore-style integrated curriculum as addressed in an earlier post.

The emphasis on achieving high performance at 18 appears to assume handover to universities at that point, although one might make a decent case for a blurring of the HE/school boundaries as being part of the solution.

Certain of the reforms proposed, eg publication of destinations data and ‘top grades’ are already commitments of the current Government. Indeed, the recent Schools White Paper was unambiguous:

‘For both primary and secondary schools, we will put greater emphasis on the progress of every child – setting out more prominently in performance tables how well pupils progress. It is clearly important that schools aim to raise absolute attainment…However, schools should take particular responsibility for how much each child learns while a pupil, and we should expect schools to make as much effort with a lower achieving or higher achieving pupil as with one whose achievement means that they are close to a threshold. So, performance tables will show more clearly how well all pupils progress’ (Para 6.13).

There is also a bow in the direction of the Government’s trust in school autonomy on matters of pedagogy and delivery, but no explanation of the processes to be followed if schools fail to share and embed effective practice throughout the system. Reference to the English Baccalaureate is conspicuous by its absence.

It is misleading to suggest there are no funding implications for schools. Allocating a staff coach for every single learner would be very expensive and the suggested ‘reprioritisation’ would leave something that schools currently fund unfunded, but what? Then there is the additional cost of informal learning opportunities for those from disadvantaged backgrounds…

The reference to schools’ role in identifying suitable out-of-school learning opportunities and securing the ‘fit’ with school-based learning is strangely half-hearted. My experience suggests this is essential.

Surely schools are best-placed to be the co-ordinators of learning for their high achievers and must help them to draw into a coherent whole their experience in school and all the different elements of their out-of-hours learning? This is a critical role for the allocated staff coach and could be supported through a VLE or similar platform and an e-portfolio.

The online (or blended) learning component of this overall learning experience is acquiring increasing significance. It would be desirable to push beyond the (now relatively primitive) methodology deployed in NAGTY’s online study groups and embrace the full richness of social media.

This would enable high achievers to learn from their peers worldwide – establishing their own personal learning network – as well as from experts. In the case of some, virtual schooling options could be appropriate to complement the ‘bricks and mortar’ experience, so creating a blended learning approach to gifted education. Diagnostic tools should be in-built, to tailor the learning experience to an individual’s needs.

At first sight, the suggestion of a national centre is a top-down solution entirely inconsistent with institutional autonomy and a distributed model. The Government would need to meet its running costs unless it could be assumed to generate sufficient income to cover them. This reads like a thinly-disguised plea for the recreation of NAGTY, albeit in a slightly different guise.

An alternative decentralised model, built around the emerging GT Voice network would be much more attuned with the zeitgeist. This will help to stimulate the market by providing information to the demand and supply sides respectively and could if necessary provide an accreditation framework to support and incentivise the supply side.

Contrary to the paper, I can see no conflict in continuing to provide a dedicated programme for the most disadvantaged gifted learners alongside a wider refocusing of the system on high performance. After all, the paper’s reference to financial support to help poor students access informal learning opportunities is more than a nod in that direction.

It would be only a small step further to provide a ‘flexible framework’ to support social mobility through progression to competitive higher education, as proposed in my post on Social Mobility through Fair Access to Higher Education.

Concluding Remarks

‘Room at the Top’ is quite right to argue that England needs to change its educational approach if it is to maximise the proportion of high educational achievers, so helping to secure its global economic competitiveness.

The analysis is similar in many respects to that undertaken in many posts on this blog, so it should be no surprise that I agree with the broad thrust of the paper.

But there are two substantive reservations.

First, although the description of the three different paradigms is consistent with the perspective of this blog, I see them as significantly overlapping rather than sequential. My perception is that all three – and especially the second and third – continue to thrive in different parts of the world, each with a significant band of adherents.

In England, national policy on gifted education has developed towards the third paradigm while retaining some elements of the second. ‘Room at the Top’ does not recognise this, perhaps because some of these changes were not introduced until after NAGTY closed in 2007. It gives the impression – perhaps unwittingly – that all developments after that date were somehow irrelevant.

The fundamental argument would have been more convincing had it properly reflected the interest there was at the time in ensuring that gifted education should have a system-wide and whole-school impact – an ambition that was eventually tested in practice by the National Challenge G&T Pilot which took place from 2009 to 2011.

The international examples of Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong are similarly hybrid approaches that draw on more than one of these paradigms. For the contemporary understanding of effective practice in gifted education – and the policy development that reflects it – is much less clear-cut than we are led to believe.

Second, the exaggerated value placed on the work of NAGTY, especially the suggestion that it somehow embodied the new ‘human capital’ paradigm of gifted education – and the intimation that international adoption of NAGTY-style practice is what is driving much of the current investment in gifted education by KBEs.

Both these shortcomings seem to me grounded in the same issue: a dissonance between the ‘idealised reality’ presented in the paper and the messier, more confused reality that we actually experience .

Instead of reflecting that complexity – the various ‘shades of grey’ – ‘Room at the Top’ presents an unremittingly ‘black and white’ view that fails to capture several important nuances or to acknowledge significant shortcomings.

Because we are not told the whole story, the strength of the central argument is undermined and is much less powerful than it might otherwise have been.

All that said, the ‘direction of travel’ is the right one and is compelling enough to secure support from the broad church of gifted education interests across the country.

It remains to be seen whether the Government, so publicly committed to learning from international best practice, will listen to these arguments and follow the trajectory of some of the world’s leading KBEs by focusing our education system on maximising high performance.


May 2011

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