Which Way Now for UK Gifted Education?

This is the first in a short series of posts about the future direction of gifted education in the United Kingdom. It tackles fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of G&T education at this critical point in the development of the oeuvre.

I’ve timed this first post to coincide with the 19th Biennial Conference of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children.

That’s partly because it has a universal significance, even though it purports to be about the UK.

And partly because it might have formed part of my presentation had I elected to attend.

But the series as a whole is scheduled alongside the formal establishment of GT Voice, the new support network for UK gifted and talented education.

I want to set out an agenda for debate amongst current and prospective GT Voice members which begins with these first order issues before moving on to examine:

  • the current state of our gifted education policy and infrastructure, particularly in England – and how we reached this position;
  • the impact to date of the Government’s wider education policies and the first tentative statements from the Opposition; and
  • how all of this might influence GT Voice’s direction of travel and initial work programme.

By the way, if you’re not yet a member of GT Voice then you should be! You don’t have to be resident in the UK. Indeed international members are much appreciated. Just sign up here.

The Formation of GT Voice

Following a far too lengthy gestation period, GT Voice, the new UK-based network of stakeholders with an interest and involvement in gifted and talented (G&T education) is on the verge of establishing itself on a proper footing.

Elections are taking place to a steering committee that will replace the current unelected working group and, provided the money can be found, a decent online platform will be available to support the network’s activities before too much more time has elapsed.

The key challenges for the incoming steering committee will include:

  • setting the tone by embracing an inclusive, democratic approach to developing the network and determining its initial activities;
  • building and sustaining the membership by providing the services and support that they want and need within the limited resources available;
  • securing GT Voice as an active and influential network, capable of providing system-wide leadership where there is currently a vacuum; and
  • securing longer-term sustainability through partnership with other bodies and – potentially – an income generation model that doesn’t undermine its members’ commercial interests but does support them in competing directly for business with non-members.

Meanwhile, the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham should be putting the finishing touches to a report on Educating the Especially Able commissioned from them by the Sutton Trust.

The report is scheduled for publication in September 2011, just as the new GT Voice Steering Group is established. It is expected to assess the state of current practice, so will be a useful supplement to recent contributions by OFSTED (England, December 2009) and Estyn (Wales, July 2011).

GT Voice will be able to take account of this evidence – alongside the outcomes of the January 2011 School Census and its own survey and data analysis, drawn together under the ‘state of the nation’ workstrand to which it is already committed, in determining its priorities.

But further groundwork is required to lay the foundations for the subsequent development of GT Voice. For we are at a watershed in the definition and understanding of G&T education.

The GT Voice network is ideally placed to host and mediate the debate that will be necessary to reach a new, broad consensus on the way forward. Indeed, this is the perfect opportunity to raise its profile and announce its arrival on the UK educational stage.

Up to now, the embryonic network has stated its objectives in general terms by means of the Charter which all members are asked to support.

This will do as an interim statement of intent, but the wording of the Charter begs many questions: GT Voice will need to establish a clearer, shared understanding before it can move much further.

This post sets out my personal perspective on the purpose of G&T education and the core issues that GT Voice will need to address. I am publishing it now because I want to stimulate and inform debate amongst members and prospective members about these issues.

My involvement with the Working Group has repeatedly reinforced the critical importance of momentum. It would be absolutely disastrous if the Election is followed by a lengthy period of inactivity instead of being put to good use. So let’s get the ball rolling…

Terminology: The First Vexed Question

It will not escape your notice that, by deciding to call itself GT Voice, the embryonic network is aligning itself – deliberately or otherwise – with those who are relatively comfortable with the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ or, at the very least, prepared to accept them pragmatically as a ‘port in a storm’.

I number myself amongst the latter, because I worry that terminological disputes are a cul de sac, diverting us from the urgent need to bring about real change on the ground.

But, although I frequently succumb to the convenient shorthand term ‘G&T learners’ (and will no doubt do so in this series of posts), I prefer to apply the G&T label to education rather than to individuals.

This in recognition of the problematic nature of identification and associated labelling, the issue that most divides opinion in this field.

That puts me personally at odds with the GT Voice strapline, as well as its Charter.

The problem is that we don’t have consensus on an alternative formulation – and the never-ending search for one will lead us further up the cul de sac until we achieve collective paralysis.

Every single suggestion is open to criticism on the grounds that it is too euphemistic (deployed for the sake of political correctness rather than with any desire for accuracy and precision), too narrow (omitting some of those learners we wish to support), or both.

For example, UK NAGC currently favours ‘high learning potential’:

‘NAGC is a not-for-profit organisation that supports the social, emotional and learning needs of children with high learning potential of all ages and backgrounds’.

But what exactly does ‘high…potential’ mean in this context? Could it include all children, or does it imply a tiny percentage, or something in-between? Or is that for the user to determine on a subjective basis? And does ‘learning potential’ embrace those with sporting talent or leadership skills, for example?

One can already feel the cul-de-sac closing in…

I can navigate to the point of recognising that GT Voice members are engaged with the interactions between sets of paired terms: potential and ability; achievement and performance; excellence and equity; challenge and support.

These may be supplemented by qualifiers like ‘high’ or ‘exceptional’, but such terms reintroduce difficulties over the setting of definitional hurdles so are perhaps best avoided. More on this later.

But I find it hard to push further – the spectre of diminishing returns looms large ahead. Maybe I should return to my ‘port in a storm’.

For it is hard to escape the conclusion that the terminology is relatively unimportant, provided of course that GT Voice can define succinctly the scope of its interest and communicate that effectively to others.

Definition: The Second Vexed Question

So what exactly is the territory that GT Voice should be occupying?

A necessary preliminary question is whether that territory should be small and tightly drawn, protected by a metaphoric circle of wagons, or larger and overlapping with the land inhabited by other interested parties.

As I’ve pointed out all too often on this Blog, what I shall continue to call G&T education is a very broad church indeed.

It includes those with a very narrow, somewhat old-fashioned conceptualisation of the field who would prefer to keep the wagons drawn about them, but there are also many – probably now the majority – who (to pile up the mixed metaphors) are more comfortable with a broader canvas.

These differences are evident in the positions we adopt on the nature and breadth of ability (which do not need to be rehearsed again here). Thankfully, in the UK, we have mostly succeeded in advocating a liberal perspective, even though resources have always been focussed disproportionately in practice.

The differences are reinforced still more markedly when we come to consider the boundaries that distinguish learners in scope from those out of it. I believe that is best approached by focussing on G&T education rather than G&T learners.

It does not seem important that some learners will have higher ability than others, except to recognise that such differences exist, so personalised provision within G&T education is critical.

I am more concerned with the undeniable fact that all learners develop at different rates and at different times. Many will need extra challenge and support for the time being; a few will need such provision throughout their education. Some would argue that only the latter cross the boundary into G&T education, but I willingly include the former too.

So the bright, the precocious and the late developers are all grist to the G&T mill as far as I’m concerned, even though their ‘G&T-ness’ may be a temporary state which they move into and out of at different stages of their education.

My personal line is drawn ahead of the point where we must acknowledge that all learners are potentially G&T. I respect the right of others to hold that view, but I find the evidence unconvincing.

I can distinguish between having high expectations of each and every learner – to be the best they can be – and recognising that, in reality, even with the best possible environment and decades of practice and effort (not to mention unremitting praise), some are destined never to escape mediocrity when compared with their peers.

But I defend the right of GT Voice members to hold that all children are gifted, just as I defend the right to believe that virtually none are gifted. By adopting narrow parameters we exclude many potential stakeholders from involvement.

Yes, the network will be much tighter, with less scope for disagreement and dissent and few unhelpful border disputes. But our scope for influence, involvement and fruitful partnership will be very much reduced.

We must avoid the temptation to circle the wagons. The size and reach of the network will be more important in determining its influence than the degree of unanimity within it. The silo mentality has hindered the development of G&T education here and worldwide, and it is high time we put it firmly behind us.

There can be strength in diversity provided that the whole community can identify tangible benefits from working collaboratively for a shared outcome.

But that requires a broad framework to define the core purposes of contemporary G&T education. It is not necessary for all members to ‘sign up’ to all areas of that framework, as long as they can find a critical mass of elements that they can support.

Preparation of such a framework is part of the process of defining consensus and getting as close to it as possible. But we need to start somewhere.

So here is my current best effort, full of flaws no doubt, but offered as a starting point for debate rather than as a finished product. How much of this can you support? Where are the personal sticking points and how would you revise the framework to take account of them?

Reconceptualising the Purpose of Gifted Education

The best way I can find to come at this question is by considering the desired outcomes of G&T education at three complementary levels:

  • the individual: the priority is to meet personal learning needs by consistently providing the right level of challenge and support to maximise performance and minimise underachievement, so securing well-being and personal fulfilment.
  • the setting (typically a school): the priority is to support – maybe even to drive – the achievement of universally high standards and continuous (school) improvement by maintaining a judicious balance between excellence (meritocracy) and equity (narrowing achievement gaps). This in turn supports competition and/or collaboration, depending on the drivers in the wider educational system
  • the educational system, the wider economy and society: the priorities are to:
  • maximise educational outcomes, continuously improving on past performance and achieving the best possible performance in international benchmarking studies; and
  • derive maximum economic benefit from the efficient development of human capital and maximise social benefits, including stronger social mobility.

Each of these requires further elaboration.

The Individual

The GT Voice Charter devotes three of its five stated ‘shared beliefs’ to the individual learner:

‘The potential of G&T learners must be positively encouraged

All learners – including all G&T learners – have an equal right to inspiration, challenge and support to maximise their potential

All learners – including all G&T learners – have an equal right to be confident, happy and fulfilled in who they are and to feel good about letting others see what they are capable of achieving’

This formulation is deliberately brief but deploys some of the essential ‘trigger words’ one would expect to see.

For me, the purpose of G&T education at the individual level is to:

  • establish when each learner needs additional opportunities, challenge and support to achieve and sustain performance which is both better than their previous ‘personal best’ and sufficiently beyond the norms expected for their peers that they cannot be otherwise provided for;
  • make available appropriate opportunities, challenge and support; continue to provide them for as long as they are needed; and ensure that provision to excel in areas of strength is complemented by provision to improve in areas of weakness;
  • by this means, seek to eliminate underachievement; low aspirations, motivation and self-esteem, as well as deficits in skills, social and cultural capital, so equipping each learner to maximise the personal returns attributable to their education;
  • ensure that each learner maintains a judicious balance between high performance and self-fulfilment, personal well-being and enjoyment.

The Setting

The GT Voice Charter has nothing to say about this second level. I would want to address several aspects of the purpose of aggregated G&T education within any learning setting:

  • to contribute the upper end of a continuum of personalised provision which is available to all who can benefit from it (rather than a separate G&T programme confined to an exclusive group);
  • to secure and sustain a rich programme of opportunities, challenge and support which is planned and personalised for each learner, drawing together provision from all sources internal and external to the normal setting (typically a school);
  • to drive universal high expectations, pulling all learners towards excellent outcomes, encouraging them to be the best they can be, rather than pushing them to achieve standard national benchmarks and allowing them to coast if and when they achieve them;
  • to narrow achievement and progression gaps between learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers by weighting opportunities, challenge and support towards the former without depressing the performance of the latter;
  • to ensure that the individuals who benefit – and those with the potential to do so – are not denied the opportunities, challenge and support they need in favour of those performing below national benchmarks for their age; and to counteract any perverse incentives that militate against this;
  • to drive excellence-driven improvement strategies which enable settings to demonstrate continuous improvement towards outstanding practice and beyond; and, by this means, contribute to the benefits of competition and/or collaboration; and
  • to contribute significantly to the educational, social and cultural benefits the setting confers on its locality.

The system

The charter mentions that effective provision:

‘is essential for securing educational excellence, narrowing achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners, and supporting social mobility; and…will make a valuable contribution to the overall quality of our education system, our economy and our international competitiveness.’

I would unpack this a little more as follows:

  • to increase the supply of disadvantaged high achievers and improve their progression to selective universities and subsequent employment, so strengthening social mobility;
  • to maximise the proportion of learners achieving at the highest levels on international educational benchmarking studies;
  • to improve national economic competitiveness by: increasing the quantum of qualified high performers, so feeding the pipelines for high skilled workers necessary to a globalised economy; providing the brainpower to drive innovation and research; and eliminating achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners at high performance levels;
  • to help maximise the economic, social and cultural benefits of high performance in sporting, artistic and cultural settings.

Finally…

In taking this position I am drawing on the economic justification for G&T education previously advanced on this Blog as well as the case for achieving system-wide high performance made in the recent publication ‘Room at the Top’.

I am also reflecting the tradition of G&T education as an instrument for inclusive whole school improvement which embodies the ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ philosophy that underpins the development of Renzulli’s Schoolwide Enrichment Modeland, more recently, the National Challenge G&T Pilot here in England.

And I am offering a flexible approach to our understanding of what constitutes a G&T learner that can potentially accommodate a whole range of different positions, if not the most extreme.

By going through this process as an individual I believe I have clarified my own thinking. But I hope that I can also stimulate a debate that is essential for GT Voice to undertake. For otherwise there is no prospect of meaningful partnership and advocacy – and we have no foundations on which to build more specific policy and position statements.

In the next post in this series we will begin to examine the current state of UK gifted education, how we got to where we are today and how current education policy is affecting the situation.

GP

August 2011

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