Academic Talent Development and Equity in Gifted Education

Volume 3/1 of ‘Talent Development and Excellence’, the online journal of the International Research Association for Talent Development and Excellence (IRATDE) is now available online and in hard copy format.

This edition consists of a ‘target article’ by Francoys Gagne called ‘Academic Talent Development and the Equity Issue in Gifted Education’ and 32 peer commentaries upon it from IRATDE members.

One of the commentaries is mine and I have reproduced it fully below. I’ve received positive feedback about the commentary – though not from Francoys himself, who chides me in his rejoinder for the ‘verbal aggressiveness’ of my final paragraph.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me, but perhaps our standards are different. It’s quite possible that others will consider that I have shown too little respect, been a little too forthright in my opinions. I leave you to judge.

Aggression aside, I disagree substantively with the arguments Francoys advances in his paper. But then we hold very different positions on those ever-present polarities that I introduced in the first post on this Blog.

It will take me some time to work through the full Volume, but I plan to return again to this critical issue once I have done so. In the meantime, I commend the IRATDE Journal to all my readers!


July 2011

An Alternative English Perspective on Equity in Gifted Education

Let me put my cards on the table at the outset. I am not an academic but a recently-retired national policy-maker. Please forgive me if I do not observe all the academic niceties: I intend no slight on the research profession, the readership of this Journal or Dr. Gagné himself.

I gave a parallel presentation at the Symposium in Seoul, South Korea where Gagné first presented the substance of his paper. Mine reflected the development of England’s national policy on gifted and talented (G&T) education in which I played a significant part. I want to use some of that experience in this critical commentary.

Although he concentrates on minority ethnic representation in US gifted programmes, Gagné says his argument applies ‘to any form of under-representation in talent development programs and extends to any country where the equity issue has been brought up’. Speaking on behalf of England, I am not sure that I agree.

Equity and Excellence

The balance between equity and excellence is often a significant element in national education policies and also in G&T education. In England, until recently, we saw the equity issue very much in terms of ethnic minority underachievement. But now underachievement amongst the socio-economically disadvantaged is very much to the fore. Many of our minority populations have successfully ‘narrowed the gap’ but the poor white working class have not.

In practice of course, an individual learner’s educational underachievement is causally complex and highly unlikely to be attributable to one factor alone. In England, gender, the presence or otherwise of a special educational need and whether or not the learner is summer-born are potentially significant elements, amongst several others.

Gagné’s commentary on the United States suggests that concern about the under-representation of disadvantaged populations (i.e. Equity) – in this case defined largely in terms of Black or Hispanic ethnic background – is peculiar to gifted education, not being prevalent in any other example of access to educational provision, where true meritocracy (i.e. Excellence) almost invariably prevails:

‘Ethnic under/over representation appears almost everywhere in general educational attainments, in many specialised fields, as well as in most sports. These ethnic disproportions often exceed, sometimes by a huge margin, those observed in gifted education. None of these situations of extreme disproportions gives rise to accusations of biased access procedures […] all concerned parties accept these ethnic disproportions, whatever their direction, as fair representations of performance differences.’

I have a major concern about this statement which applies to much of Gagné’s argument: it is the conflation of measures of attainment and performance with measures of ability and potential. For I believe that identification for G&T support should be about spotting the latter rather than simply confirming the former. Attainment is one factor in identifying ability but, by definition, it is useless in identifying gifted underachievers whose ability is not yet translated into high attainment.

Quite apart from that fundamental concern, there are several other factors at play in each of the parallel fields examined by Gagné that interfere with what one might term ‘fair competition’. I very much doubt that one could substantiate his claim that ‘all concerned parties’ in the US are convinced that such ethnic (or socio-economic) imbalances are entirely fair representations of performance differences.

That is certainly not the case in England, for equity issues – whether seen in terms of ethnic or socio-economic background – loom large whenever access to a relatively scarce educational opportunity or support service is under scrutiny. This is particularly true when there is a selection process involved. Some examples would be:

  • entry to an outstanding primary or secondary school;
  •  entry to one of our remaining selective secondary schools;
  • selection into either the highest or the lowest sets in schools that set children by ability;
  •  securing a place at a competitive university; and, of course,
  • identification of gifted and talented learners.

In countries where the quality of educational provision is patchy, a selective meritocratic approach (excellence) often determines who will benefit from the scarce commodity of a high quality education. However, lotteries, targets and quotas of various kinds are frequently deployed to soften the impact of rationing by ensuring that disadvantaged populations do not lose out too severely (equity).

Under-Representation in Gifted Programmes

Gagné cites rather old statistical evidence of the under-representation of socio-economically disadvantaged learners and Black and Hispanic learners amongst those identified as gifted and placed in gifted programmes in the US.

A US Government representative (Perez 2010) has recently confirmed that Blacks comprise 17% of the student population yet only 4% students enrolled in gifted classes are Black. He does not cite the source of this data but, if it is accurate, it paints a far worse picture than the statistics in Gagné’s article, though they are hardly a cause for complacency.

I once heard an expert say that under-representation of disadvantaged learners is an unresolved problem for G&T programmes the world over. That may be true, but there is evidence that it may be relatively less of a problem in some countries than others, though this relates to achievement rather than ability. A 2006 PISA study (OECD 2009) showed that:

  • in a typical OECD country about a quarter of top performers in science come from a socio-economic background below the country’s average (and the UK is fairly typical in this respect);
  •  but in countries like Japan, Finland, Austria – and in Hong Kong and Macao in China – one third or more of top performers come from a socio-economic background more disadvantaged than the average;
  • and in countries like Portugal, Greece, France and the US, 20% or fewer top performers come from a socio-economic background more disadvantaged than the average.

Other things being equal, one might expect higher performing education systems to achieve more equitable outcomes. McKinsey’s report ‘The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools’ (McKinsey and Company Social Sector Office 2009) makes clear the consequences of failing to address the issue.

In England, our latest data for identified gifted and talented learners (Department for Education (2010) shows that socio-economically disadvantaged learners and some ethnic minorities are under-represented compared with advantaged and white pupils respectively. The good news is that our G&T population is gradually becoming more representative; the bad news is that we are not moving quickly enough.

Our standard proxy for disadvantage – though not the only one and by no means the most refined – is eligibility for free school meals (FSM). In 2009, 27% of students eligible for FSM achieved five or more GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) graded A*–C including English and maths (the standard benchmark for examination performance at age 16) compared with 54% of those not eligible – exactly twice as many (Equality and Human Rights Commission, The 2010).

Meanwhile, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils within the national gifted G&T population in secondary schools (7.5%) is only slightly more than half the percentage of secondary sector FSM-eligible learners as a whole (14.2%). This might suggest a continuing correlation between prior attainment and identification as G&T despite our best efforts to avoid it (see below).

The picture is much better in the primary sector, which perhaps bodes well for the future. One other compensation is the likelihood that, without the approach we have taken, our G&T populations would be even more dominated by relatively advantaged groups than they are already. And there is comfort in the evidence that, although we started much more recently, we do not seem to be doing too badly in terms of representation of ethnic minority populations or lower socio-economic groups when compared with the US.

Approaches to Identification

Gagné’s approach to identification seems unnecessarily restricted to measures of IQ and academic achievement. He criticises another commentator for daring to suggest that it may be desirable to adopt a broader view:

‘many school districts are bending backwards to include as many minority students as possible without completely putting aside their most common selection instruments, namely group IQ tests and school grades’.

These may be the most common instruments, but they are not necessarily the best! When developing England’s national G&T programme, we were clear that we wanted to focus on ability rather than achievement. We accepted that attainment measures were useful elements of an evidence base for identification but irrelevant, by definition, for those whose high potential was not yet translated into high performance against those measures. We saw IQ and cognitive ability tests as useful elements, but we were clear that no single instrument (or even IQ tests and school grades together) would serve as a ‘magic bullet’ for identification.

So we adopted a multi-faceted approach, encouraging schools to consider the full range of qualitative and quantitative evidence available to them before reaching a ‘best fit’ judgement. We advocated ‘identification through provision’ as part of this mix, on the grounds that some learners may never have had the opportunity to demonstrate some abilities. We suggested identification should be an ongoing process, rather than a one-off selection, adjustable in the light of new evidence and changes in a learner’s rate of development (recognising that this is rarely linear or consistent).

This means that G&T identification in our system is not necessarily a permanent distinction, but – especially for younger children – a marker that the learner needs extra challenge and support ‘for the time being’. This helps parents and learners to manage the issues around labelling and movement in and out of the G&T population. It also enables schools to see G&T education as an integral part of their whole school strategies for personalised education.

We have also given schools significant flexibility over where to pitch their hurdles for inclusion in the G&T population, so that they are partly defined against the rest of that school’s intake rather than determined entirely by a standard set of national benchmarks. This has an obvious downside in terms of consistency and ease of collaboration between institutions but, on the other hand, it encourages every school, no matter how disadvantaged its intake, to focus on its own most able pupils. In our view it should not be possible for any school to say that it has no no G&T learners.

Finally, we ask schools to start from the premiss that ability (not achievement) is evenly distributed within the population, so that they aim for a G&T population that broadly reflects the gender, ethnic and socio-economic balance of their intake. We do this because we believe that it helps teachers to focus more thoroughly on monitoring those groups that are most likely to harbour hard-to-spot underachievers. (And also, frankly, we took this stance originally because we did not want to mire our national programme in ‘Bell Curve’-type controversy at a time when many schools were resistant to the programme on the grounds of perceived elitism.)

I have already admitted that we have not been entirely successful. I suspect that this is attributable in part to sloppy identification practice in some schools which focus too heavily on attainment measures, relying over-much on the easily measurable. Despite our best efforts, these schools are following the same rather limited approach that Gagné advocates.

Parallels in University Entry, Music and Sport

A variety of social and cultural factors will also impact on the three areas identified by Gagné where meritocracy prevails in the US with the support of ‘all concerned parties’:

  • We are told that entry to undergraduate courses at the University of California depends in large part on prior educational attainment including how that is conveyed through the SAT. Here we are back to the distinction between attainment and ability. Californians may accept the outcome with equanimity but, in England, we are much exercised about what we call ‘fair access’ to our competitive universities and the Coalition Government regards this as a key indicator of social mobility. Ministers repeatedly remind us that, in one recent year, just 40 learners eligible for free school meals secured a place at Oxford or Cambridge. We do not have a level playing field because disadvantaged students will typically have experienced poorer quality education in their schools and colleges and less reliable information, advice and guidance about the university options open to them. They may also have had to overcome low family and community aspirations and even low expectations from some educators . Such inhibitors are not present for their more advantaged peers.
  • Study of music at doctoral level will be affected by the same pre-university attainment filters plus, presumably, another set of filters determining entry to postgraduate courses, associated mainly with the quality of one’s first degree. As with undergraduate study, one is not comparing ‘like with like’. In addition to the factors already cited, there are likely to be some social and cultural effects associated with the nature of the music and the types of instrument studied. Put bluntly, students from advantaged backgrounds are likely to have had more exposure to classical music from an early age and more opportunities to learn a relevant musical instrument.
  • Additional elements enter the equation when it comes to Gagné’s comments about sports. The sporting distinctions he cites relate to single sports rather than to sporting ability per se. We all know that different sports are dominated by different ethnic groups – that is presumably a function largely of the specific skills required by those sports and their social and cultural significance to the community in question. But we do not maintain – as far as I am aware – that generic sporting ability resides disproportionately with one race or background. Moreover, it would be ridiculous to apply this line of argument in relation to socio-economic disadvantage, even allowing for the fact that diet and fitness are typically better amongst relatively advantaged populations. To take a sport-specific example, we in England are concerned that we have few world class tennis players. But this is largely because tennis is perceived as a middle class game – we do not believe that people from poor backgrounds lack the physical and mental skills needed to play the game at the highest level!

Last Words

I do not wish to say much about Gagné’s DMGT. It is one of the best-known of hundreds of competing models that are advocated to policy-makers the world over. As such, it has some significant elements that all should consider, but no one theorist has the perfect solution and policy-makers should in my view be eclectic in their taste! It does not seem to me to be the sole response – or necessarily the best to the issue outlined in the first half of Gagné’s paper.

I was struck that Gagné’s notion of talent development requires ‘access to be limited to candidates who demonstrate good chances of success’, that judgement to be based on past achievement. He would presumably regard our more catholic approach as the introduction of ‘noise’ that is ‘not supported by clear proof of […] transformation into academic talent’ .The counter-view is that we strive to avoid the circularity whereby high achievers are the only ones selected as capable of high achievement.

I have to admit that I had understood Dr. Gagné’s presentation in Seoul to be deliberately provocative, designed to prompt discussion and debate. I was unsure that he seriously believed his own arguments. His position is as extreme in its own way as the ‘all children are gifted’ argument and, assuming I’ve understood him correctly, I’m afraid I find each equally unconvincing.


Department for Education (2010). Statistical First Release 09/2010. Retrieved May 13, 2010, from SFR/s000925/SFR09-2010.pdf

Equality and Human Rights Commission, The (2010). How Fair is Britain – Equality, Human Rights and Good Relations in 2010 – The First Triennial Review. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from uploaded_files/triennial_review/how_fair_is_britain_ch10.pdf

McKinsey and Company, Social Sector Office (2009).The economic impact of the achievement gap in America’s Schools. Retrieved April 1, 2010, from Images/Page_Images/Offices/SocialSector/PDF/achievement_gap_report.pdf

Perez, Thomas E. (Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights)(2010).Addressing disparities to ensure equal educational opportunities – Remarks as prepared for delivery at the Civil Rights and School Discipline Conference. Retrieved September 27, 2010, from speeches/perez_eosconf_speech.php

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), (OECD)(2009 ). Top of the class – High performers in science in PISA 2006. Retrieved 2009, from