Which Way Now for UK Gifted Education: Retracing Recent History

The first part of this post reviewed the terminology, definition and purposes of gifted and talented education, so opening a debate about how the new GT Voice network might position itself.

Part Two reviews the recent history of English gifted education, extracting lessons from the past that we can apply to our current situation.

This is a precursor to analysis of the impact on gifted education of the Coalition Government’s wider education policies as it begins a second full academic year in power.

A Brief History

The decade 1999-2009 was a period of significant growth and much improvement in English G&T education.

But we began from a very low base, the improvement was by no means uniform or continuous and hard evidence of a significant positive impact on national performance has proved typically elusive.

The records of the Government’s specialist G&T education contractors – the University of Warwick for the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) (2002-07) and CfBT for Young Gifted and Talented (YG&T) (2007-2010) – always loom large in any treatment of this period. But it is all too easy to overestimate their significance.

We have already had occasion to review the independent evaluation of NAGTY, encapsulated in its telling use of the phrase ‘a curate’s egg’.

There is no published YG&T evaluation, but the oral evidence given to the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee in February 2010 conveys the tenor of contemporary professional opinion:

‘Mr Chaytor: The Young Gifted and Talented Learner Academy closes its doors on 12 February, and the website is already being wound down. Does anyone regret its passing? Has it served any useful purpose?

Sue Mordecai: No.

Chairman: No one else regret it? No. Thank you very much.’ (Q48)

It suffered an early setback when proposals for a credits-based approach, based on the precedent of e-learning credits,proved incompatible with the Government’s commitment to removing funding ring-fences.

There was an opportunity to develop YG&T aggressively as an e-university, building a comprehensive international catalogue of free-to-access online resources and linking them together in tailored learning pathways and mediated learning packages, for use at home and school alike.

That would have provided a foundation for the development of a blended learning offer – an affordable means to stimulate the supply side of the market in face-to-face learning opportunities. It probably gave the best chance of achieving scale with limited resources, the Achilles heel of YG&T, as of NAGTY before it.

The NAGTY evaluation notes that the Government was consistently pursuing a deliberate policy of distributed responsibility, seeking to build capacity through partnership and collaboration:

‘At the national level it is clear that the Department wanted a dispersed model rather than a single centre of expertise – its interest was more in building capacity regionally and locally than in establishing a more centralised model based on NAGTY.’

This continued after 2007, manifested partly in the distribution of responsibility between YG&T and the National Strategies, managed by Capita, the latter focused on in-school improvement, the former on out-of-school support.

There was scope for confusion over exactly how the two services fitted together, but the resolution of overlaps ensured a close working relationship. The arrangement also helped to keep in check those centripetal forces most injurious to a distributed model.

But the advances made during this period were attributable to successful partnership working across organisations, even where the lead was held nominally by a single body. External expertise was harnessed wherever possible.

We English tend to deride our own achievements. While none of the elements below is perfect, they collectively embody a framework that would be the envy of gifted education advocates almost anywhere else in the world:

  • A national cadre of leading teachers for G&T for every primary and secondary school, supported by a handbook and a substantial training package;
  • A school census question about identified G&T learners, providing a basis for analysing the composition of G&T populations, their characteristics and achievement;
  • Regional partnerships and excellence hubs co-ordinating G&T education support for learners and educators alike across local authorities and universities;
  • The National Challenge G&T project enabling schools subject to national intervention to introduce and become expert in the delivery of ‘excellence for all’ school improvement strategies; and
  • The SSAT G&T school network – the foundation for a national partnership of schools with the capacity to provide system-wide leadership in G&T education.

They constitute a substantial legacy that GT Voice can and should protect – and upon which it can build in future.

The 2009 Schools White Paper

By 2009, the Government’s increasing impatience with ‘field forces’ – the various intermediary bodies enabling it to effect change on the ground – had become a dominant theme.

Field forces are costly and funding would be in increasingly short supply in future. Giving schools more freedom to drive their own improvement is far cheaper – especially if they are expected to use their existing budgets – and can arguably help drive up standards by freeing schools from the shackles of central prescription and empowering them to develop the solutions right for them, rather than forcing them to apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The new path is mapped out in ‘Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future, Labour’s Schools White Paper published in June 2009:

‘Under this model, the DCSF will, in general, cease to provide, or fund the provision of, school improvement support. Rather, DCSF will ensure that there is sufficient supply of quality-assured improvement support, across the country, to meet schools’ demands…

…as far as possible we will move to our new model of support for improvement…with centrally-funded programmes continuing only where there is a national need which is unlikely to be met in a devolved system.’ (pp 58-59)

The White Paper does not outline a process, or specify objective criteria to assess national need and the probability of continued support under devolution. But it outlines how schools and school leaders will offer school-to-school improvement and also proposes:

‘…creating a series of improvement support frameworks, to identify quality-assured providers of support on important aspects of schools’ responsibilities across all five Every Child Matters outcomes. Existing and new providers could apply to be included. Acceptance would not in itself provide funding or a guarantee of business – it would be for individual schools to choose (and pay for) the right providers…with the frameworks providing an assurance of quality…

…We will ensure that there is a smooth transition to the new arrangements, and that the legacy of high-quality programmes and guidance that the National Strategies have developed over the last 12 years continues to be accessible to schools and local authorities.’

The White Paper itself confirmed the final termination of the National Strategies in March 2011 and CfBT was informed that its YG&T contract would end as planned in March 2010.

The White Paper does not spell out which aspects of schools’ responsibilities would be deemed sufficiently important, but there could be some hope – if not expectation – that a new raft of procurement frameworks might support an emerging market of G&T education suppliers, so filling the void created by the termination of these contracts.

And, further, there could be reasonable confidence that National Strategies’ support would be perpetuated by some means yet to be determined, such as licensing new providers to use, adapt and mediate their resources.

But the only explicit reference in the White Paper to G&T education is within the accountability arrangements developed to support newly-autonomous schools.

It is not to be found in the four declared pillars of the accountability system – a new school report card, self-evaluation, school inspection and the role of the School Improvement Partner – but in the entirely separate Pupil and Parents’ Guarantees.

These specified that every identified learner and their parents should have:

‘written confirmation by their school of the extra challenge and support they will receive’

and the parents should also be given:

‘a clear understanding of what they should do to help them’.

For the very first time all schools would be required to specify how they would support G&T learners, and to engage directly with parents about their role in that process.

It was the next best thing to a national entitlement, providing a foundation for guidance and sharing of effective practice, as well as giving parents a clear basis to challenge schools that neglected their responsibilities – and vice-versa of course.

But even as the policy was developed, the Government knew that its future depended on a Labour election victory in May 2010.

The Guarantees were opposed by the Opposition as an anti-autonomy measure, citing bureaucracy, centralisation and micro-management. It was feared that they would promote excessive litigation, empowering middle class parents but providing little support to the relatively disadvantaged.

By April the chances looked slim. The Tories refused to support a range of measures in the Children Schools and Families Bill and the Guarantees were lost in the frantic horse-trading that preceded the Dissolution of Parliament. They could only be rescued by a Labour victory the following month.

Transition – Labour

We are getting ahead of ourselves chronologically and need to return to the February 2010 Select Committee oral evidence session.

The DCSF’s Statement to the Committee is broadly consistent with the White Paper:

‘We now want to build on the achievements of the last twelve years and move into the next phase of the programme by widening provision yet further to support every able child in every school. We believe that the next phase of support for Gifted and Talented pupils should be school-led….

We believe that schools themselves should support the progression of all their Gifted and Talented learners and build their capacity to do this. This will build upon schools’ expertise in knowing how best to support the young people that they serve, and enable the support to be tailored to young people’s individual needs.

We also want to support more disadvantaged pupils who may be more likely to need extra support to help them to fulfil their potential. We are also providing £250 per pupil aged 14-19 years, registered as Gifted and Talented and from a disadvantaged background.’

Three months earlier, the Executive Summary of OFSTED’s thematic report ‘Gifted and Talented Pupils in Schools’ (December 2009) had given a slightly different perspective:

‘[DCSF] has recently reviewed its national programme for gifted and talented pupils and concluded that it was not having sufficient impact on schools. As a result, provision is being scaled back to align it more closely with wider developments in personalising learning. Schools will be expected to do more themselves for these pupils.’

At one level there are grounds for optimism that a framework comprising:

  • a national support programme for gifted, disadvantaged 14-19 year-olds developed out of City GATES;
  • a new procurement framework supporting third-party suppliers of gifted education services to schools; and
  • the Pupil and Parents’ Guarantees, now with added meat on the White Paper bones

would provide the basis for a further phase of strong development embracing every school – especially if the Government heeded arguments for a fourth element, advanced to the Select Committee by John Stannard, then National Champion for G&T Education:

‘If it’s [G&T education] going to be mainstreamed in schools, we’ve got to see it much more in the centre of schools’ attention. That means it needs more accountability around it; it needs Ofsted to be stronger; it needs a clearer framework of requirements from the Department to come straight down to schools, so they are not in any doubt about it; and it needs some more guidance on the funding and how that should be allocated in schools. At the moment, that remains to be done.’ (Q135).

He was drawing directly on evidence from the December 2009 OFSTED Report:

‘Most of the schools said they needed further support to identify the most appropriate regional and national resources and training to meet their particular needs better…All the schools visited felt they needed more support and guidance about how to judge what gifted and talented pupils at different ages should be achieving and how well they were making progress towards attaining their challenging targets across key stages’.

But in reality the future was much more uncertain.

We have seen already that the Guarantees were unravelling well before the Election.

Plans for procurement frameworks and a National Strategies legacy were not very far advanced – and probably placed deliberately on the backburner pending the Election outcome.

The support programme for gifted disadvantaged 14-19 year-olds was developed out of City GATES, a YG&T programme supporting disadvantaged gifted learners in the City Challenges to progress to competitive universities.

While delivery of City GATES was sometimes inconsistent, the original vision had been pioneering, providing a basis for unifying the Government’s overlapping G&T and fair access strategies.

The planned national expansion would have pared back the original framework, creating a more intuitive online planning tool and encouraging schools to draw on internal resources alongside a directory of external provision to create a tailored support programme for each eligible learner.

But a funding stream could not be guaranteed on the other side of the Election, especially beyond the spending review cycle ending in March 2011.

Moreover, there was no obvious co-ordinating body, there being no appetite for DCSF to assume the task, or for the National Strategies to caretake the role pending post-Election clarity.

Transition – Coalition

Michael Gove, the incoming Conservative Secretary of State, had declared an intention to improve G&T education prior to assuming power, in February 2009:

‘There should be better provision for gifted and talented students – nearly a fifth identified as such don’t go on to get five good GCSEs’

‘I think the national Gifted and Talented programme simply isn’t taken seriously, either by the Government or by some of the schools. The Government isn’t serious enough about providing stretch and challenge to children who have academic ability

Andrew Adonis was serious about it but it’s gone backwards now that he’s disappeared from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I know other [Labour] cabinet ministers are concerned about failure in this area’.

But any plans hit the Tory’s cutting room floor prior to the conclusion of the Coalition agreement.

By the time of the Draft Schools Manifesto in January 2010, the only vestige that remains is a commitment to reform school performance tables so they reflect the performance of the most and least able.

That commitment also made its way into the Coalition Agreement, albeit with a slightly different emphasis:

‘We will reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate the progress of children of all abilities’.

Ministers allowed planned G&T education work to continue until the end of the funding cycle rather than seeking relatively small savings from immediate termination.

This gave NAGC and the nine Regional Partnerships some breathing space to work out whether and how to continue without central government funding. The National Strategies were also allowed to complete planned work during the final year of their contract, notably National Challenge Pilot materials and the Progress Tool.

The Partnerships benefited from a substantial £4m budget in 2010-11 for City GATES and its national roll-out but, without any supporting infrastructure, this could only be a one-off payment. I can trace no national arrangements for integration with new funding streams such as the Pupil Premium or the National Scholarship Scheme.

This PQ reply confirms that, including £2.3m in the PE and School Sports Strategy (PESSCL), a total of £8.952m was spent on G&T education in FY2010-11, and this sum excludes that part of the National Strategies’ contract attributable to G&T education.

Were the same question to be asked in respect of 2011-12, only Teach First’s funding for its HEAPS programme would feature, though I can find no explicit reference to the sum, which is presumably swallowed up in the much bigger DfE core grant.

Now the Strategies are closed down, Labour’s plans for a National Strategies legacy and procurement frameworks seem to have been sidelined. The National Strategies website is consigned to the National Archives. DFE’s own page for G&T education has also been removed.

The Coalition does not have a declared policy for gifted education. The nearest we have come to a statement is in the Lords Committee Debate on an amendment to the 2011 Education Bill advanced by Lord Blackwell:

‘After Clause 35, insert the following new Clause-

“Duty to provide for the needs of high-ability pupils

In determining the nature of their educational provision, all maintained schools, Academies and free schools must have regard to meeting the special learning requirements of children within their admissions group who have or subsequently demonstrate high ability or aptitude for learning.”‘ (Col GC424)

In her response, Baroness Garden of Frognall says:

‘My Lords, education is about helping every child to make progress and reach their full potential, and that includes those pupils who have a high ability or aptitude for learning. There are many ways in which schools can support and challenge those pupils with the highest ability….Schools already have the necessary freedom to work together to ensure that all the pupils in their care get an education that stretches and develops them. That is backed up by accountability through Ofsted inspections. More performance information on the progress that schools make with the highest achieving pupils will be part of that.’

We shall analyse the impact of these wider policies in Part Three of this post.

Labour in opposition

Early Labour attacks on Government education policy did not offer any alternative because the party had decided to establish policy reviews to conduct a root-and-branch analysis of previous failings and outline new directions.

The education reviews are led by Andy Burnham, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, but there is also a cross-cutting review, led by Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Culture Secretary. Sometimes this is described as examining talent development and social mobility; sometimes it is defined much more narrowly as a ‘Creative Industries Policy Review’.

To date, these seem to have been conducted behind closed doors, by a small cadre of selected experts. One of the appointees to the education reviews is John Stannard, the former National Champion for G&T. He is the probable influence behind positive statements in a recent Burnham speech setting out the initial direction of his reviews:

‘As Secretary of State for Education, I would look to build a school system in England based on three clear principles:

    • First, where hard work is properly rewarded and all young people have something to aim for beyond school.
    • Second, where we reach every single child, by judging schools on the difference they make for every individual student – including how far schools stretch the brightest.
    • Third, where learning is made relevant to life today, building the character and qualities young people will need to succeed in 21st century’.

He introduces the possibility that the Pupil and Parent Guarantees might be revived:

‘…is there a case for setting out a minimum entitlement for all children – a binding statement of rights in a world where the education system is more fragmented and some schools narrow their focus? It could build on our pupil and parent guarantees, scrapped by this Government.’

And he specifically proposes increased collaborative work between schools in support of gifted learners:

‘A refocused 14-19 curriculum might also mean at 14 that we spend more time bringing the very brightest children together from schools a cross a local authority area, so they can learn from each other and we can give them a clearer idea of what is required on the Russell Group or Oxbridge path’.

So far, so promising. It will be important for GT Voice to make contact with Burnham and Lewis at the earliest possible stage, to begin a dialogue to inform the further development of Labour policy.

What Lessons Can We Learn?

The key messages for GT Voice I take from this review of recent history are that:

  • there is currently a leadership, infrastructure and policy vacuum in G&T education. It is open to GT Voice to inhabit this space and to do so now would position it well to influence future developments, including the emerging policy of the next (Labour?) Government;
  • we must ensure that what has happened in the past informs new thinking about the nature and purpose of G&T education. GT Voice members are best placed to make these connections and to undertake the thinking;
  • there is an important G&T education legacy which GT Voice can and should protect or it will rapidly disappear; there is much within this legacy that could and should be updated and applied in the new context, as well as some commercial possibilities to exploit.

The third part of this post will examine the impact of the Coalition Government’s education policies on contemporary gifted education and how this might influence GT Voice’s agenda in 2011/2012.


August 2011

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