Two Very Different Perspectives on Giftedness and Gifted Education


Regular readers will recall a recent two-part post rather provocatively titled ‘Are All Children Gifted’. The second part contained a section about the doctoral thesis prepared by Barry Hymer, now Professor of Psychology in Education at the University of Cumbria.

Over recent weeks, Barry and I have been engaged in a stimulating and challenging debate about that section and the differences in our respective understanding of giftedness and gifted education.

We decided that this would make interesting copy, and Barry has very kindly offered to edit the text for submission to our chosen educational publications.

In the first instance, however, we agreed that I should publish the full version as a blog post, so that there is a complete and freely available record which readers may respond to if they choose, via the comments facility below.

So, if you have strong views about what follows, tell us what you think and why you think so. It would help me – and hopefully other readers – to reflect on the fresh perspectives that you will bring to this debate, which strikes to the very heart of gifted education.

BH 25 JANUARY 2012

Hi Tim – Enjoyed (as always) your typically thought-provoking blog, but felt I really ought to make a brief response to your reading of my ‘social-constructivist’ take on giftedness!  Please forgive the relative brevity:

1.  A social-constructivist position is by no means incompatible with a profound respect for what you describe as “empirical research” (by which I assume you mean research conceived within the positivist tradition and quantitative methodologies – but I should add that qualitative research can also lead to empirical evidence).  I have always valued research evidence (hence my suspicion for and concern over the theoretical model within which the ‘English model’ of giftedness was conceived – Michael Barber conceded at the time that it was built on social policy considerations, not social science), and draw widely on this in the field of giftedness, as in other areas of learning.  I am a well-known enthusiast of Carol Dweck’s research, for instance, and no-one has yet regarded her as being empirical-lite!  And I regularly deliver INSET about what meta-studies have to offer the field of education (Wang, Hattie, Marzano, Coffield, Higgins, etc) – and these data offer real challenges to popular (mal)practices – e.g. homework in primary schools, learning styles approaches, gifted cohorts, etc).  In short: an alignment with social-constructivist thinking doesn’t require one to live in an empirical vacuum!

2. My thinking in 2002 is not my thinking in 2012, or even in 2006/7 – as detailed in my doctoral thesis!  For instance, the definition of giftedness that I used in my 2002 book (which you refer to) isn’t the one I use in my 2009 Pocketbook.  And the enthusiasm for research within the positivist tradition that characterised my early adulthood is now tempered by a great respect for research paradigms that are simultaneously more cautious in their claims and more ambitious in their scope.  Indeed, if my thinking had remained static within this period, you would have great reason to be sceptical!  (I remain proud, however, of my prediction in my 2002 book that the then-emergent NAGTY experiment was doomed!)

3. I never have claimed that “all children are gifted” – even in my 2002 book.  The word is too fuzzy to make such a claim.  Read that (relative) definition more closely and you will see that children’s environmental circumstances will, in this context (as in all others), play an inevitable role in the emergence of giftedness.  In fact I’ve always contested the claim that all children are gifted.  That said, neither have I ever claimed that some children could never be gifted – anyone would be daft to do that (like the person who advised the young Oscar Pistorius to avoid sprinting as a career-choice!).

4. Similarly, where do you find evidence of my “denial of any heritable dimension”?  This is especially mystifying.  It’s as daft as going for a 40:60 genes-environment ratio (or any other ratio) in the “nature-nurture” debate!  Most contemporary psychologists believe this to be a sterile and deeply-flawed conceptualisation anyway: we can no longer believe in a 20th-century notion of genes somehow overlayed by environment (G+E) in an age when all the evidence is that genes interact with the environment (and vice versa) from the moment of conception – i.e. it’s GxE, rendering the nature-nurture framework good for its author’s time (Galton) – but hardly the 21st century.

I do welcome your (and anyone else’s) critiquing of my thinking – it’s how I grow – but the best scholarship involves a close and careful interrogation of the best of someone’s else’s thinking, not a decontextualised analysis of inadvertently misunderstood elements.

In friendship!




Hi Barry

I’m glad you took the critique in the spirit in which it was intended. The text was based entirely on what I found (and what I didn’t find) in your doctoral thesis. I haven’t read your other books.

I drew the ‘all children are gifted’ inference from your definition:

‘A gifted or talented student is regarded as one who has:

    • experienced a degree of facilitated self-reflection on his or her pattern of learning strengths and preferences, and:
    • identified his or her area(s) of greatest strength(s) within the framework of an enriched or extended learning environment.’

which could in principle apply to everyone – especially given your own comment upon how it could be applied in practice:

‘There was the potential…for 100% of a school’s roll to be identified as gifted or talented – but only through the rejection of a norm-referenced, comparative understanding of the term, in which a child is gifted because she is objectively “better,” “brighter,” “more successful” than another, in any given domain…Instead, there is the potential for the term to be conceived in ontogenetic terms, in which a child (any child) is seen to have a gift in a domain, because relative to her other interests, aptitudes or performances, this domain emerges as a relative strength or focus of energies.’

I take that to mean that, if the measure of giftedness is taken to be a person being better at some thing(s) than others, rather than being better than (most) other people at those things, then it can apply to pretty much everyone.  We’re still talking my 2001/2002 definition here, and yes, hypothetically it could – but in practice it won’t – not all children will have access to an enriched and extended learning environment (especially when this is restricted to 5-10% of the school population!), but my energies over the past 15 years have been in the direction of making it so!  And even if by some magic every child did have access to this ideally enriched, extending and reflection-rich learning environment, every child would only be gifted within the province of this intra-individual definition.  (I’ve never been much interested in norm-referenced rankings of ‘the gifted’).  I remain surprised, therefore, that you see this as evidence for a belief that I subscribe to the view that ‘all children are gifted’ – since your critique seems to come from within a model of giftedness (in which some children ‘are’ and some children ‘aren’t’) to which I do not subscribe – mostly because I’m more interested in the development of talent, not in the identification of those from whom talent might be expected, and those from whom it might not.

I looked in vain for a clear and unambiguous statement elsewhere in your thesis that this did not apply to your later thinking, as encapsulated in the notion of ‘generative transformational giftedness’ but I couldn’t find one.  As above – since I saw (and see) no evidence that this did apply to my earlier thinking, I saw no reason to refute it!  My thinking certainly has moved on in that period though, as I sensed that that early definition, whilst having substantial moral traction and a certain educational veracity too, isn’t where I wanted to invest much space or energies.   If you can point me to the words I will gladly eat humble pie. The same goes for any clear statement in the thesis that heritability remains a factor in ‘generative transformational giftedness’. Since these two things seemed to be absent, I drew the obvious inference.  Again, my thesis was never intended to be a vehicle for creating a nailed-down definition of ‘giftedness’, but a description and analysis of my own travelling in the field – which en passant led to the emergence of a model for gift-creation (NB, not identification).  Nor did I feel the need to attribute any proportion of influence on giftedness to genetics – not because I think children are tabula rasa on whom the environment writes the script (I don’t), but because as an educator I can’t affect children’s genes.  In fact I don’t know anyone who can.  Of course genes matter, but all the weight of gene-studies (particularly via twin studies) suggests is that there is, on average, a statistically detectable genetic influence on intelligence in the region of 60% – but the variability is huge, depending on a multiplicity of factors (which group?, when measured?, how?, etc).  In fact Turkheimer (2003) found that the heritability of intelligence was near 0%: a neat model of genes overlayed by environment is way too simple to describe the dynamic interaction between genes and environment during development.  Both have an influence ONLY in interaction with each other, not independently AT ALL.  Whatever figure emerges applies ONLY to groups (and to that specific group) – not to any one individual within that group.  Of course this is how statistics work.  In other words, twin studies and the like tell us nothing at all about anyone’s individual potential – hence my lack of serious engagement in this issue as an educator.

I entirely accept the point that the relationship between genes and environment is complex (and say so) but I still maintain, on the basis of what I’ve read, that there is broad consensus that both are significant (agreed!), so that each might typically account for 40-60% of causation (acknowledging of course the serious health warnings attached to such an estimate). It isn’t a proper answer to say, as you seem to, that it’s all too complicated to allow of any attempt at quantification whatsoever.  Sorry – it is – see above!  Statistics are powerful tools, but in the words of the old saw, when all one has is a hammer, everything one sees begins to look like a nail ….

But this is all second order stuff. My bigger and far more important point is that Borland’s line is fundamentally right – why bother squabbling endlessly over definitions and causation, when the much more important issue is how to make education more responsive to the needs of such learners.  (Which learners??!!  Is this a slip of the finger, given what you’ve just said?  Borland has no specific demographic in mind, for the reasons you transcribed earlier.)  But absolutely Tim – if by “such” you really meant “all”, on this we are as one, like Torville & Dean, like steak and kidney, like rhubarb and custard, like (alas) Nick and Dave.  Hence my reason for positioning myself firmly on the peripheries of the “G&T movement” over the last 15 years – much as I admire many of the members of it and the work that they do (I include you in this).  And I’m aware that positions which involve some nuance are easily labelled as either dismissive of the entire field, or intellectually incoherent.  This is a risk I’m happy to take, since nuance is for me an inevitable consequence of careful scholarship, and greatly preferable to the alternatives (there be monsters).

Your study left me feeling despondent at the ultimate futility of the process you described within it, for I could see no practical benefit for the learner from all that carefully-wrought intellectual positioning. I’m no scholar, as I’ll be the first to admit,but I worry deeply that much of the scholarship I encounter in this field is fundamentally feeding itself, rather than making a real difference to the quality of education in our schools.  You may have a point here, as I suspect the academic community hasn’t always been very adroit in relating research to practitioners’ needs, but this is the very reason why my academic focus in recent years has shifted towards practitioner-led research, and supporting teachers and other educators in researching their own practice – and drawing on the best of traditional research evidence in the process.  It is in seeing how this reflective practice transforms classrooms and the opportunities for children that I feel so energised, joyful and enthusiastic.  Far from seeing research as futile, when research involves a light-footed interplay between theory and practice, the outworkings are hugely practical, and impact on thousands of lives.

I was particularly angered by the position taken by the National Curriculum Review Expert Panel, who appear to have ducked the issue of able pupils’ progression (even though it was clearly part of their remit) because they couldn’t make it fit with their ideological position.  Just a thought, and without passing any comment on the report as a whole: is it possible that they take the evidence-led (not ‘ideological’) view that concepts like ability, giftedness and talent are fluid, not fixed?  In that case, their ‘omission’ is entirely consistent with a focus on all pupils’ progression.

If I’ve been unfair to you it was because, having read your thesis, I felt that the same criticism could arguably be laid at your door, in relation to that single piece of work I hasten to add.  I realize that I may not yet have convinced you otherwise, but I would ask you to consider reading some of my work directed at practitioners – and perhaps some of the thoughts communicated by teachers who’ve experienced my inservice sessions – I receive very few accusations of introspective onanism – and I’m far too torn by conflicting pulls to be seen as ideologically consistent (though I might reasonably aspire to some moral and intellectual consistency)!  And the non-deterministic model that emerged from my thesis is now used as the ‘G&T’ framework for very many teachers across the UK and beyond – the G&T Pocketbook wouldn’t have become a bestseller by marketing alone.  That said, I continue to admire (as I’ve always done) your manifestly authentic engagement in the field – qualities which you displayed throughout your tenure with the DCSF, and which you continue to demonstrate in your current role as the most active, curious and critically-focused G&T blogger on the web – and you describe yourself as “no scholar”?  I take issue with that as much as any other.

It would be good if we could publish this exchange on the blog. Are you content for me to do so?  Quite content.

Thanks and best wishes  Ditto.

Some Fish by Gifted Phoenix


Hi Barry

Sorry that it’s taken so long for me to return to our dialogue.

Given the time that’s elapsed – and given that we’re both agreed that we’d like to publish this – I thought I should try to develop my response to each of the arguments you’ve advanced in your two previous emails.

I’m hopeful that, in the light of your subsequent reply, we might conclude by capturing the points on which we agree and those on which we still disagree?

An excellent idea Tim, and potentially very interesting to readers…Anyway, here are my responses to the thought-full points you make in reply to our previous exchanges:

The compatibility between a social-constructivist position and empirical research

It will be no surprise to you that I still don’t really understand the relationship between social constructivism and empirical research. I suspect that the answer is complex and won’t lend itself to brevity!  Social constructivism is a paradigmatic worldview of a qualitative researcher; it’s not a methodology or form of research in itself.  Because it is predicated on the notion that knowledge is socially constructed and can’t relate to any outward, pre-existent ‘reality’ (which doesn’t exist ‘out there’), it lends itself to such qualitative research tools as action research, unstructured interviews, case-studies etc.  Whilst social-constructivists do do empirical research, it does require a particular view of what ‘empirical’ might mean: it’s not the empiricism of Locke (all knowledge comes direct from sensory experience) or the logical positivists with their close associations with mathematical definitions of proof.  Indeed it requires a redefinition of the boundaries between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ since there can be nothing that exists ‘objectively’ – i.e. independently of the world ideas – which have in turn to be socially constructed.  I’m aware these might seem like over-subtle and ‘magical’ descriptions, but they relate to what follows below – bear with me:

What exactly is it that determines whether you are personally convinced by any given piece of research and, perhaps more to the point, whether you believe that those attending your INSET sessions should be convinced? Two answers here, but I suspect that only one will come close to convincing you!:  1. Whether the research study is well-designed, well-executed and well-interpreted, and that it contributes something useful to our understanding of something that we regard as important and worthy of study.  2.  That it tells a good story.  There are many factors that have to be taken into account in deciding whether a piece of research meets these criteria (and here I mean the criteria for both answer 1. and 2.), and these will to some extent be a feature of the tradition within which the research is couched.  Things like sample size, internal and external validity, appropriate use of statistical tools, access to experimental and control groups, etc are all important in research couched within a positivist tradition (which draws mostly on quantitative research).   This is because positivists believe that people’s behaviour can be studied in much the same way that we study the physical world and that the ‘reality’ of that which is studied exists independently of the human observer.  Their studies are designed to focus only on the feature under investigation, to the exclusion of all else.  This isn’t necessarily to say that they’d deny the importance of other factors, but simply that, “This isn’t what we were studying here”.  Once it’s been (well) designed, the research therefore follows a set and highly technical path, with no distracting detours.

By contrast, naturalistic research (mostly but not exclusively qualitative) eschews laboratory-type studies for explorations in medias res (in the middle of things).  These researchers believe that when we study ragged, complex, inconsistent things like people we can at best aspire to comment on probabilistic relationships between actions and consequences, but we can never assume deterministic relationships between causes and effects.  They too aim for rigour and robustness in their enquiries, but if humans at least partially construct their own realities in their engagements with others, they will be less impressed by numbers, data, confidence intervals, effect sizes and generalisability than by the answers they and their readers provide to questions such as these: is this a plausible account?  Is it a rich account?  Does it make sense in the context of the study, and of other studies in the field?  Does it invite alternative accounts?  Does it lead to new insights and ways of conceptualising the issue/s studied?

What is it about Dweck’s research, other than that it tends to support your own preferred position? Why do you particularly value meta-studies, when one might reasonably argue that the aggregation of research findings within them makes them inherently more unreliable, on the grounds – presumably regarded sympathetically from a social-constructivist viewpoint – that context is everything?

Great questions, and very incisive!  It is true that Dweck’s research and the studies that tend to get lumped into meta-studies (and syntheses of meta-studies) tend to be couched in the world of quantitative research and generalisable truth-claims.  It is true too that as a social constructivist I am sceptical of some of the claims made in such research.  Whilst such studies are often received warmly by politicians (and, dare I say it, civil servants) seeking ‘bottom-line’ evidence about value for money, they are fraught with dangers.  Here are just a few (openly acknowledged by their creators, like Hattie): 1. they rarely include social background/poverty effects, even when these are way more important than the things that are included.  2. The studies are not equally valid – they’re a VERY mixed bag.  3. They’re often limited to one dimension of schooling – achievement – whereas there are many alternative candidates – long-term love of learning, citizenship skills, etc.  4. Findings from laboratory studies may transfer poorly to the contexts of actual classrooms – or not at all.  5. Correlation is not causation: to move from ‘this is significant’ to ‘so this is what teachers should do’ is to ignore this warning.  6.  Perhaps most importantly of all, meta-studies have nothing at all to say about what the purpose of education actually is – which is a profoundly normative question, invoking the notion of values.

That said and notwithstanding these and other theoretical and technical reservations, insofar as quantitative research does provide us with evidence (of a particular sort), we should be minded to pay attention to it.  All of it, NOT just that which tends to support my own position.  It’s because there is no credible counter-evidence to Dweck’s research that I am struck by it and call upon the G&T field to take it into account.  I am aware, however, that in my INSET sessions, which are necessarily time-precious, I usually neglect to give any significant time to critiquing the paradigm in which this research is based and as a result may give the impression that I think Dweck is the last word on the subject.  Much as I admire her work, as a social constructivist I actually have some serious reservations about this paradigm, and I don’t believe in ‘last word’ research – like all scientists, social scientists can talk only of current best thinking in the light of currently best available evidence.  Dewey said it best: “Evidence does not supply us with rules for action but only with hypotheses for intelligent problem solving, and for making inquiries about our ends in education.”

You refer in your subsequent paragraph to: ‘a great respect for research paradigms – outside the positivist tradition – that are simultaneously more cautious in their claims and more ambitious in their scope’. Which paradigms are these? Qualitative paradigms, like social constructivism, critical theory, structuralism, post-structuralism and even (deep breath) postmodernism.  How do the authors of such research expect that we, its consumers, should respond to it? With an open and critical mind – like anything else.

My very basic notion of social-constructivism is that the value of research depends critically on the interaction between the individual ‘consumer’ and the research, which amounts to what I called ‘cherry picking’ in my post. So it is not the methodological rigour of the research – and whether it stands up to peer scrutiny – that determines its worth, but whether it helps you as an individual to a greater personal understanding of the issue with which you personally are wrestling. It might be methodologically ropey, but as long as that’s not important to you, it might still be highly significant. Am I wrong?  I hope so!  I’m all for an individual reaching a greater personal understanding of an issue with which she is wrestling, but methodological rigour is profoundly important in all paradigms of research.  What is critical here is the individual’s own ontological and epistemological stance: what is real?  What counts as evidence?  And what is the relationship between the knower and the known?  It is highly unlikely, for instance, that a social constructivist will believe that multilevel analyses of relationships between nested variables will reveal much that is useful about the nature of these relationships.  Similarly, a positivistically-minded person (whether she knows she is or not) is unlikely to be impressed by an interpretative-phenomenological study that reveals rich insights but no hard conclusions about “what works”.  Both studies will therefore need to be critiqued from within the tradition in which they are couched – and by their own criteria of what is methodologically sound and robust.  To do otherwise is like asking Richard Dawkins which of the gospels best approximates to the truth of Jesus’ relationship to God.

I yearn towards a clearer understanding but, given my more positivist perspective, I fear the logic drags one inexorably towards the final unhelpful position articulated by Yun Dai which I quoted in my post: ‘All forms of knowledge are nothing but devices of social control, of gaining economic advantages, or simply a language game’.  Postmodernism can have a certain pessimistic bleakness about it, I admit!

Your thinking in 2002 is not my thinking in 2012, or even in 2006/07

It would be uncharitable of me not to allow you the possibility of developing your thinking, or even of changing your mind, since I certainly cannot claim a consistent position between 1996 (when I first got involved) and now.  Thank you.

I would maintain, however,  that your thesis does not explain very clearly the relationship between your 2002 position and your 2007 position, at least not in terms that I could clearly understand.  That will be the fault of my writing then, as that was one of its intentions.

I’m very happy to credit your foresight in predicting the demise of NAGTY, although I can’t pretend that the decision was informed by any reference to your arguments as to why that would be a good thing.  Of that I have no doubt!  NAGTY was conceived explicitly on the understanding that it was a good thing!  Even when shaky theoretical foundations get exposed by the buffetings of life we don’t always blame the foundations – we think the walls were badly built.  As the Pulitzer-award-winning writer Upton Sinclair once remarked, “It’s difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it.”  I use this quotation without implying any reference to you (I have always seen you as someone very keen to understand things – even when they do challenge your foundations.  Your career decisions reflect this integrity).  I’m thinking more of other NAGTY architects and first inhabitants, and the revisionist histories that followed after the fall.

You have never claimed that all children are gifted

The 2002 definition accepts the ‘inevitable role’ played by children’s environmental circumstances in ‘the emergence of giftedness’ (these quotes are from your response, not your thesis). But the principles you cite in the thesis include:

‘The school has an important role in helping every child to identify his or her gift/s or talent/s’.

Did you mean ‘every child’s gifts or talents’ as a convenient shorthand, similar to that which I describe in the first part of my post, or is this to be taken at face value as a statement that every child does indeed have gifts or talents?  Yes, the latter, but within the terms of that definition (relative strengths, rather than objective strengths).  Even then I did not argue that all children are gifted or talented within the dominant and traditional understanding of that term.

As you point out, the definition does refer to self-identification: ‘within the framework of an enriched or extended learning environment’

But there is also the subsequent commentary I quoted in our previous exchange:

‘There was the potential…for 100% of a school’s roll to be identified as gifted or talented – but only through the rejection of a norm-referenced, comparative understanding of the term, in which a child is gifted because she is objectively “better,” “brighter,” “more successful” than another, in any given domain…Instead, there is the potential for the term to be conceived in ontogenetic terms, in which a child (any child) is seen to have a gift in a domain, because relative to her other interests, aptitudes or performances, this domain emerges as a relative strength or focus of energies.’

The references here to ‘100% of a school’s role’ and ‘any child’ could certainly be taken as allowing for the possibility – indeed desirability – of realising universal giftedness,  albeit dependent on universal access to the appropriate learning environment. I had understood your work in Barrow EAZ to be focused on generating precisely those conditions and end result? Yes, quite true, and I’d still hold that to be a noble educational aspiration.

Your thesis says you were happy that your 2002 definition ‘avoided, we felt, a woolly “All children are gifted, so let’s not talk further about it” response’. But the subsequent paragraphs, especially the section I have quoted above, led me to assume that you were not rejecting an ‘all children are gifted’ stance per se, but were only taking exception to a ‘woolly’ response that failed to explain why that was the case?  I wasn’t rejecting the stance of believing all children could be gifted according to that definition – but again I must draw your attention to that definition, and how specific it is in its construction – it’s a hundred miles removed from the traditional understanding of giftedness, which posits (falsely) some relatively clear, objective, unambiguous, widely-accepted and culturally all-embracing understanding of the term – in which some kids ‘just are’ gifted and some kids aren’t.  It’s a scepticism entirely consistent with social-constructivism, for the reasons provided earlier.

You say in your commentary that it would be ‘daft’ to claim that ‘some children could never be gifted’, but I think that depends on one’s understanding of the term, and to what extent one is prepared to include extreme circumstances. Agreed. Of course, if giftedness is solely a matter of a person being better at something than he is at others, then it would be daft to make such an assumption. But if relativity to others is part of the equation, then I think this is a more legitimate position, even though the relevant heritable dispositions may be quite widely distributed.  I’d even take issue with this position, because the notion of ‘heritable dispositions’ isn’t independently valid to me, except in its inseparable (hence, hardly independent) interaction with environmental, attitudinal and related non-hereditary factors.  We don’t have a great track-record of predicting outstanding achievements on the grounds of early evidence of natural ability (think Edison, Einstein, and innumerable stellar achievers in every domain of human achievement).  So if a label like giftedness doesn’t have a predictive function, what useful function does it have – merely to describe some people as ‘gifted’ in retrospect?  There doesn’t seem to be much that’s educationally interesting there ….

Where do you find evidence of my denial of any heritable dimension?

I agree that you don’t deny a heritable dimension but, as far as I can see, you fail to acknowledge any heritable dimension in your 2002 definition.  Your thesis says:

‘Looking back on this period, I recognise that these ambitions were only partly realized, and our attempts to liberalise conceptions of giftedness were nonetheless framed within a traditional psychological epistemology: the complexity would embrace, for instance, both within-child factors (e.g. inherited or acquired predispositions, aptitudes and intelligences, learning dispositions) as well as situational and motivational factors (e.g. levels of opportunity, encouragement and learning challenge).’

But, despite this, I could find no acknowledgement of within child factors in the definition itself:

‘A gifted or talented student is regarded as one who has:

(i)            experienced a degree of facilitated self-reflection on his or her pattern of learning strengths and preferences, and:

(ii)          identified his or her area(s) of greatest strength(s) within the framework of an enriched or extended learning environment.’

 There is none that is explicit, although arguably a pattern of strengths and weaknesses is likely to come from somewhere – i.e. the indivisible dance of genes and environment.  So I guess that someone desperate enough to find this somewhere, would find it here.  I also inferred that, when ‘looking back on this period’ from … the vantage point of … 2007, you were doing so from a position in which you had by then successfully escaped the bounds of ‘a traditional psychological epistemology’, including its emphasis on various ‘within-child factors’.

That’s because there is again no obvious reference to such factors within the nearest equivalent I could find to a definition of your 2007 position:

‘…just as individuals build their knowledge through language and social interaction, so can gifts be built, created or made – rather than identified, discovered or found. This will in large measure be dependent on the social and relational element at the heart (in more than one sense) of generative transformational giftedness – as socio-cognitive processes emerge through the activating and development of higher-order thinking skills, which in turn arise from the relationships a person sustains with his or her social environments.’

I acknowledge the construction ‘can…rather than’ allows for the possibility that giftedness still can sometimes be ‘identified, discovered or found’ (If that’s a possible reading, I shouldn’t have used the word ‘can’!  I don’t believe it’s EVER “found” as a sort of free-floating potentiality, and if we think it has then we’ve underestimated or failed to acknowledge the role of that child’s wider linguistic, social and intellectual environment in contributing to the development of that skill – via GxE.  You can see that in this area I am conceding very little!) but I could find no other evidence to support an expectation on your part that typically it would do so.

Again, as previously mentioned, that thesis did not set out to define giftedness explicitly, but it did (as one part) attempt to set out the conditions in which giftedness can emerge.  As a social constructivist, I don’t believe that “natural cognitive capacity” exists as some pre-formed, objective and real “thing” that might be attributed to some invisible factor like genes, so it would be odd indeed if I pretended that it did.

This brings us back to the statement in the first part of my post that:

‘Consequently, heritability and environment are both significant determinants of ability. In some cases, environmental benefits will compensate for limited heritability and, in others, the opposite will be true. It follows that someone with limited heritable ability can compensate through learned skills and effort – and someone blessed with heritable riches may need to try less hard. But these two factors are not always easy to unravel (eg effort cannot be regarded solely as a product of environment, unaffected by heritable dispositions).  You could also argue this the other way – that heritable dispositions can hardly be seen to be unaffected by such things as effort, opportunity, etc.! Typically though, heritability and environment are relatively balanced: we might expect each to account for some 40-60% of the causation of ability, though there will be exceptions.’

I like your statement that the relationship between genes and environment is more GxE than G+E, which neatly conveys some of the complexity of the inter-relationship between them.

But I still don’t understand why that prevents one from offering a view on what the balance of evidence suggests is a typical weighting of the two factors, hedged about as it is with all kinds of health warnings that this cannot be applied reliably to each individual.  See my earlier reply – any “weighting” of factors aligns itself with a simple and false G+E understanding.  Once things are seen as necessarily acting in concert with each other, and those things are dynamic and complex to start with, then we’re dealing with an algorithm that hasn’t been invented yet (but GxE comes closer).

I readily admit that this conclusion may be little more than an acknowledgement that, if one reviewed all recent research on the topic, from the full range of different academic perspectives, one would find ‘outliers’ at either end of the spectrum, who argue that giftedness is predominantly (even exclusively) heritable or, conversely, predominantly (even exclusively) determined by environment.  Probably, but I wouldn’t position myself at either end – I’d suggest we needed to question the discrete integrity of the putative key players (heredity vs environment) in the first place.  To the extent that there is consensus, however, it does seem to converge around the relative balance described in my ratio. (Not really – see previous reply.) Presumably, a meta-analysis of the kind you use for INSET purposes would offer a ‘real challenge’ to those who would design gifted education policy on the basis of either of the two extreme views? (Sorry – I couldn’t resist that!)

Your comments on my comments

On the ‘all children are gifted’ inference

You admit that your 2002 definition of giftedness can hypothetically apply universally, to every child, provided they have access to an ‘enriched and extended learning environment’ and that you have been focused on securing that outcome.  (And don’t forget the other key factor – deep reflection.)

I recognise that this applies in relation to your ‘intra-individual definition’ in which people are deemed gifted solely by reference to themselves, rather than through relative comparison with others. The fact that you see no role for the relative in the process of establishing the incidence of giftedness is a fundamental difference between us, as I see it. Perhaps because ‘incidence’ (like ‘identification’, ‘discover’ and ‘find’) betrays an essentially fixed, stable concept of giftedness, whereas I see giftedness as fluid and dynamic.  When the context changes for a child, so does the giftedness.  We just need to see how a child might be ‘gifted’ with one teacher and ‘difficult’ or ‘ordinary’ with another to recognize this.  If we then take an ‘incidence’ perspective on this phenomenon then it requires us to argue that with the second teacher giftedness enters a latency or dormant stage!  In that case you may as well argue that every child is either gifted or latently gifted – if superior genes are the clincher, why don’t they do the clinching?!

It’s not so much that I believe some children ‘are’ and some ‘aren’t’ – it’s more accurate to say that I accept that some children will have heritable dispositions that will make giftedness – in a relative sense – significantly more likely for them than for others.  If I can include my essential GxE point, I think you just MIGHT be right here – this may well be a point of agreement – but our divergence is in what we do with this belief.  I would ask how you would EVER know who those children are?  Certainly not via the circular reasoning of “identification procedures”, however comprehensive they might be.  Even if we did full genome mapping of every child, geneticists have yet to identify the gifted gene – so what are we looking for by way of predictive power?  An emphasis on “some children with latent high potential vs some with latent low potential” is therefore a dangerous dead-end educationally.  And potential in what exactly?  Chess?  Javelin-throwing?  Maths?  Poetry?  Languages?  Cycling?  Or the “broad intellectual schema” on which these specific domains are underpinned?  Visual-spatial skills, athletic skills like eye-hand coordination, logical-mathematical skills (in early algebra?  Trig?  Arithmetic? …).  Now this already problematic conceptualisation becomes riven by questions of ethics and value: what skills do we value in our society?

To me this is a statement of the obvious. You seem to want to escape the evidence that some children are relatively advantaged genetically by refusing to make any kind of relative comparison, and you justify this on the grounds that you are more interested in developing talent than identifying it.  See above!

I take the same line on the translation of high ability into high achievement, regardless of how we define ability or achievement. It does not seem to me likely that, were we to be able to control properly for environmental differences (and how might we do that exactly?  Not in this life, and certainly not by giving some children access to distinct teaching and learning opportunities!  Giving the best quality learning opportunities in school only to the least-advantaged children might go some very limited way to controlling for environmental differences but I can’t see that winning favour in the Daily Mail or at NAGC AGMs!), all the children in a Year R classroom would have exactly the same prospect of achieving the same outcomes at age 16 or 18, for example. Similarly, it does not seem to me likely that, with the same environmental control in place, all those children would be equally likely to excel in, say, weightlifting or piano-playing, no matter how intensively they practised to acquire the necessary skills. Do you disagree? Not at all – for all manner of reasons – but I still wouldn’t be able to make accurate predictions about who would and who wouldn’t benefit most at the outset!  And they would all benefit somehow – however differentially!  Please don’t extend my argument to suppose that I believe that all children are gifted, or equally gifted, or equally predisposed to giftedness, or all equal in some other capacity, or should all be equal in every respect ….

On your definitions

You argue that your ‘thesis was never intended to be a vehicle for creating a nailed down definition of ‘giftedness’’. I accept that, but a central theme is the description of the process by which your 2002 definition was transformed into your 2007 conceptualisation of ‘generative-transformational giftedness’. It was not possible for me, as a reader, to understand exactly what you meant by the latter without understanding the role of heritability within it. The fact that you did not supply any clear explanation of the role of heritability left me no real alternative but to make inferences from the evidence I have cited above.

To argue, as you do, that this was because ‘as an educator I can’t affect children’s genes’ is an easy cop-out. As an educator, I can’t directly affect poverty, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to ‘narrow the gap’ between the achievement of disadvantaged and advantaged learners.  This is a good point and I accept it at a theoretical level, but it still doesn’t offer me a way of changing children’s genes or my practice as an educator.  And poverty is FAR more susceptible to concerted socio-political action than genes are.  So if you’re suggesting we both throw our weight behind movements in support of poverty-reduction, we’ve found another point of agreement.  That would, after all, be one way of significantly increasing the total capability pool (see my recent article on Nussbaum, Heckman, Sen et al in G&T update) – it’s about the opportunities available to people – not just to those we predict will benefit from them!

Your statement here ‘of course genes matter’ is welcome, but it would have helped to see that explained properly within your thesis, as essential context for both your 2002 position and your 2007 conceptualisation. I accept that:

  • There is huge variability in the genetic influence on intelligence (and giftedness?)
  • The interaction between genes and environment is complex and
  • There are statistical (and conceptual) issues about applying the general conclusion to any given individual

But I think we still differ over the reporting of this fact. I want to set it out as honestly as I can, with the health warnings explained as clearly as I can manage, but you seem to want to avoid any quantification whatsoever because it’s all so misleading and bound to be misunderstood by those who are insufficiently expert in the field.  Which is basically all of us – as a species!  You make another good point though, and that is, for me, that I should set out more explicitly and more regularly why a focus on genes is a red herring.  And this dialogue and opportunity for me to have my own thinking challenged has helped me immeasurably in this regard.  I’m not sure that’s the conclusion you would like me to draw, but it’s the one I’m led to.

I’m afraid I still maintain that merely saying ‘it’s complicated’ will not do at all.  Fair point.

What’s the point of dancing on the head of this pin?

I used the phrase ‘such learners’ because I didn’t want to reopen the question of which learners I meant, but I owe you an answer.

Whereas I think you see gifted education as (equally?) applicable to all learners, I see it as principally applicable to a subset (while recognising that there may be spin-off benefits for the whole school population). Specifying that subset is more difficult, but I believe it should be an evidence-driven process that involves comparison with others and with what is normally expected at a given age or stage of development,  rather than being confined solely to what an individual is best at. I also believe, as you know, that many learners are likely to move in and out of that subset over time. If that’s the case, surely what makes some people move out of that subset over time (loss of opportunity, motivation, application etc) are exactly the same factors that allow them to move into it?  And that’s why specifying that subset isn’t just difficult, it’s nonsensical.

I won’t say anything against practitioner-led research which draws ‘on the best of traditional research evidence in the process’, except that I would have the  reservations already expressed above if it turned out to be practitioner-led research in the social-constructivist tradition!  A great pity – you have just dismissed many of the greats of educational research and theory, not least Vygotsky and Bruner.

I also recognise that the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review was reflecting the view that ability is fluid rather than fixed. That itself is not problematic because I share that view. Another point of agreement then.  But holding such a position is not a justification for failing properly to address their remit to advise on support for the progression of able pupils.  It’s the only intellectually consistent approach to take!  They compounded the fault by recommending the removal of National Curriculum levels – the basis of our current methodology for supporting progression – without offering any clear advice about what, if anything, would replace them.  High quality formative assessment, quality feedback, a high challenge curriculum, deep as well as surface level learning etc. – all the things that are valued in all good research – including that couched within your preferred tradition!

Final comments

This is much, much longer than I intended it to be. I accept that, were I to read your other work, I would most probably find a more developed, rounded and contemporary treatment. I do hope so, but there’s no guarantee you’d be able to embrace it all.

But, if I were I to encounter teachers using it as ‘the G&T framework’ I would, frankly, tell them to read more widely! Yet another point of agreement – I don’t claim the final or even the best word on this subject – though it’s the best I can currently offer.  For part of my gripe has always been that too many educators are seeking an easy answer from a single authority, rather than drawing on a range of sources to inform decisions about what will work in their own particular context. Yes – and politicians, and civil servants.  And – while I’m not accusing you of this – too many of those authorities actively collude in this process, peddling their solution as the absolute and incontrovertible truth while totally disregarding alternative positions and, what is worse, marketing them aggressively for all they are worth.  There’s a fine line between aggressive marketing and active dissemination, but when you compare the relative resources allocated over the past 15 years in England to the aggressive marketing (or active dissemination) of things like NAGTY, EiC, G&T in the Nat Strats etc with the hopeful efforts of solitary practitioners and academics, it doesn’t seem like a very fair contest does it?  In fact it’s remarkable that people peddling arguments and ideas get any traction at all under these circumstances.  It says something for teachers’ receptivity to reasoned ideas, embedded in a strong values base, and communicated as clearly as possible, and their impressive resistance to doing things just because they’re told to

I’m grateful for your kind words about me personally. I respect you no less – and what I admire most about you is your honesty and capacity for self-reflection. It has often struck me that, were gifted educators as a breed to be imbued with more humility and less egotism, we would likely have made much more progress than we have managed over the past 20 years.  Thank you Tim, and this final sentence is one final point of agreement, though I will admit in my worst moments to having far less humility and selflessness than I aspire to at my best!

Another Fish by Gifted Phoenix


Hi Barry

Yet again it has taken me far too long to come back to this fascinating and challenging exchange of views – I have been struggling to convert numerous imperfectly translated sources into a convincing description of gifted education in South Korea.

There may be a parallel of sorts between that exercise and this one, in that I have also struggled to translate your explanations of social constructivism into terms that I can understand and assimilate. The fact that I have been trying to rationalise all this is, perhaps, indicative that I am trapped by my own positivist world-view. I am a monoglot. You, on the other hand, are bilingual and, moreover, I suspect that you are blessed with some of the convert’s missionary zeal!

I realise that the social-constructivist doctrine you describe is very attractive to me in the persona of a one-time student of English Literature. I find that, if I substitute novels or poetry for academic research, I am much more comfortable with such ideas. But when I try to fit them with my concept of the nature and purpose of educational research, the pieces of the jigsaw won’t fit properly together. It feels as if there has been an affront to logic. I hope that this is making sense…is slightly more than impressionistic nonsense.

I don’t think I can or should pursue further at this stage the questions posed by education research in the social-constructivist tradition, except to remark that I can foresee some difficult issues for adherents of evidence-based policy-making, as well as about the nature of ‘best practice’ and its transferability from one environment to another. That, in turn, calls into question some familiar aspects of contemporary education policy – for example, that it is possible to identify outstanding schools and that they can and should focus partly on helping less outstanding schools to improve…

I want to focus instead on the specifics of giftedness and gifted education, trying as far as possible to identify our points of broad agreement and those where we differ. I have tried my best to set this out below – but please feel free to disagree if you think I have misinterpreted you, or omitted any of the more significant elements.

An area of fundamental disagreement

It is clear that we hold (or at least you once held) fundamentally different ideas of the nature of giftedness, in that I understand you to see this entirely in terms of individuals being better at some things than they are at others (the relative) whereas I would also expect those individuals to be better than most of their peers at those things and/or better than external standards designed to capture normal expectations at a given age and stage of development (the comparative).

I want all learners to be the best that they can be, in their areas of strength as well as areas of relative weakness, but I also want them to be better than others too, especially if they are struggling against disadvantage and may be more likely to overcome it if selected in to some scarce or rationed opportunity through competition with their more advantaged peers.

I think our different positions on this fundamental issue rather colour the rest of this summary since, where we agree, we do so from the perspective of these substantively different concepts – so the agreement may be more tenuous than first appears. Nevertheless…

Areas of Broad Agreement

  • We agree that there is an extraordinarily complex mix of genes and environment at play in determining an individual’s relative abilities – and perhaps also their comparative strength? You call this ‘genes x environment’ and ‘the indivisible dance’ – I like the former but stop short of the latter (see below).
  •  We also agree that a learner’s ability is fluid. But I think you tend to attribute this to environmental factors – eg different teacher, different school – whereas I see it more as a function of learners’ non-linear progress and inconsistent pace of development: some will forge ahead for a time and need extra challenge and support during that period; some will stay ahead for much of their time in school; some will be ahead once and never again; some will be ahead on more than one occasion during their school careers.
  •  I think we both agree that giftedness doesn’t have a predictive value – ie we cannot determine on the basis of childhood ability who will be outstanding or expert in adulthood (however we define those terms) so there is no point in designing gifted education to support ‘expertise in development’. I think we both maintain, however, that there is personal and national advantage in maximising high achievement, which involves raising as many learners as possible to that level (however defined) and eradicating higher level underachievement, often attributable to a false assumption that individual learners need only achieve external thresholds, rather than striving to exceed them. I suspect you would want to express this in somewhat different terms.

Areas of Broad Disagreement

  • The foremost of these is dictated by our different paradigms of giftedness. Within your paradigm, I think I have encouraged you to concede that you believe all children may be gifted (or did so in the past), provided that they all benefit from a conducive environment (including support for deep reflection). I do not hold this view. I have said that I ‘accept that some children will have heritable dispositions that will make giftedness – in a relative sense – significantly more likely for them than for others’. You have conceded that this might be right – not forgetting the critical significance of environment of course – but I take you to be saying that we can never identify who these children are, because identification procedures involve ‘circular reasoning’. For me it is not important to identify just heritable dispositions. It is important to establish when learners need challenge and support because they are forging ahead of their peers, regardless of the mix of heritability and environment that has caused this.
  •  I’m not sure, but I think we also continue to differ on the question of whether we should attempt to explain the blend of genes and environment – at least in quantitative terms. You see this as the ‘indivisible dance’. You have said that you ‘should set out more explicitly and more regularly why a focus on genes is a red herring’ but that stops short of my position. I think I can best describe that as wanting to express the ‘production function’ that specifies all the inputs for a given level of output. I suspect that our respective choice of metaphor says rather a lot about our positions on this!
  •  Then there is also the stance adopted by the National Curriculum Expert Panel, which I have taken to task for failing to offer proper recommendations about progression for able pupils, despite having a remit to do so. You suggest that, having once accepted that ability is fluid, this is ‘the only intellectually consistent approach to take’. I might conceivably have accepted this argument had the Expert Panel made any effort to advance it, but this they did not do. In the absence of any convincing explanation to the contrary, I continue to believe that any personalised process based on formative assessment needs to have inbuilt some objective measures of the progress learners are expected to make across a key stage, with comparatively higher expectations for those capable of faster progress. There may be fluidity in the rate of progress at different places between these start and end points, but that does not undermine the need for explicit expectations about progress across the key stage as a whole.

I’m aware that some of this summary will likely set new hares running at a time when we are seeking to bring this dialogue to a close; also that there are several other points that I could – perhaps should – have included. But you have waited quite long enough – and it’s a warm sunny day and I yearn to be outside!

Since I had the first word, it’s only fair that I offer you the last!

PS. Barry chose not to offer a further contribution and we agreed to end our dialogue at this point.



April 2012


A Brief Commentary on Systems Thinking in Gifted Education

Back in September last year, I received an invitation from Albert Ziegler, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and Secretary-General of IRATDE, to contribute a peer commentary for publication in High Ability Studies, the journal of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA).

Although they are separate entities, IRATDE and ECHA have overlapping memberships and even governance. The Vice-President of IRATDE, Heidrun Stoeger – Professor of Education at Regensburg University in Germany – is also the Editor-in-Chief of High Ability Studies, while Ziegler is a member of the International Advisory Board. Both Ziegler and Stoeger are speakers at ECHA’s 2012 Conference in Munster, Germany

The target article for the peer commentaries was written by Ziegler with Shane Phillipson, now an Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia. Phillipson is also joint editor of IRATDE’s Newsletter ‘Talent Talks’.

The article is called: Towards A Systematic Theory of Gifted Education  and is essentially an introduction to the application of systems theory to gifted education.

The Abstract reads:

‘In this target article, we argue that current approaches to gifted education are based on the erroneous view that to understand the development of exceptionality we need to merely understand the components of giftedness, including cognitive [factors] such as intelligence and non-cognitive factors such as motivation. In contrast, systemic approaches to understanding exceptionality focuses on the interactions of these components where it is important to firstly understand the system that leads to exceptionality before it is possible to understand its components. After analysing the weaknesses of current approaches to gifted education we then present three central arguments for the need for a paradigm shift. This is followed by an introduction of constructs of a systemic approach of gifted education. Using the actiotope model of giftedness to understand the development of exceptionality, this article describes the basic principles of a gifted education that is based on this systemic approach.’

I had better not summarise further since the edition of the article posted on Ziegler’s University website is marked ‘draft, uncorrected blueprint, please do not quote’.

Commentaries were not to exceed 1,200 words. I struggled hard to meet this limit and the deadline. Albert Ziegler was very encouraging. I sent him a long draft and he encouraged me to whip it into shape. He even sent a supportive comment to the editors when I copied him into the final version.

But all to no avail. In February I received a short note from the Editorial Assistant. She pleaded ‘the large number of submissions’ and hoped ‘the outcome of this specific submission will not discourage you from the submission of future manuscripts’.

In fact, the episode has done nothing to resurrect any vestigial confidence in the whole business of editing and publishing academic journals. But that’s quite another story.

As far as I can tell, the relevant edition of High Ability Studies has not yet appeared, so you cannot yet read the contributions by my elders and betters, nor the riposte from Ziegler and Phillipson. Here’s my offering anyway, which speaks for itself.


April 2012


How Useful is a Systemic Theory of Gifted Education?

I am a systems thinking novice. I know slightly more about theories and models of giftedness and gifted education, but I come at them as an ex policy maker: I want to know how they can be applied to improve the scale and quality of gifted education for the direct benefit of gifted learners, schools, the wider education system and society as a whole.

I readily accept that systems theory provides a lens through which to consider giftedness and gifted education. I am far less ready to accept it uncritically as the new paradigm, to be applied exclusively and in place of existing ‘analytical’ perspectives.

The Nature of Giftedness and Gifted Education

The target paper says that research into giftedness has:

‘traditionally focused on an exclusive group of individuals with the potential for exceptional accomplishments in one or more area.’

The subsequent treatment rests on the assumption that the sole purpose of gifted education is to support these individuals to achieve adult excellence in their preferred domain(s).

Many prefer an approach that supports a much wider group of learners, enabling them to develop in their areas of strength, but also to improve in their areas of weakness, so they emerge from schooling as rounded individuals with the capacity to choose from a relatively wide range of routes into higher education and employment. One could argue that one purpose of gifted education should be to provide gifted learners with choices, rather than pushing them exclusively (and perhaps excessively) towards excellence in their particular area(s) of strength, especially if that may be detrimental to their holistic development.

The paper says that:

‘Traditional approaches to gifted education are based on the implicit assumption that protecting gifted individuals from inhospitable surroundings should suffice for ensuring that the most can be made of their potential…and it is precisely in this respect that we can see how the current approaches to gifted education have fallen behind the multifactorial models of giftedness that specify both the internal and external requirements which need to be fulfilled before potential can be realised.’

It may be true that over 90% of funding for gifted education is channelled into five main strategies (though it is unclear how this estimate could be derived for worldwide expenditure on gifted education, given the absence of any reliable data upon which to base it).

But setting and ability grouping, acceleration, enrichment and pull-out provision can only be regarded as protection from inhospitable surroundings if they constitute ‘stand-alone’ provision and the overall quality of mainstream education is low. If they are combined with high quality teaching and learning and effective differentiation in mixed ability settings, they become additional tools in the armoury of personalised learning, helping to ensure that gifted learners – indeed all learners – receive an education tailored to their needs.

The fifth strategy – the award of financial assistance – is more often associated with tackling wider problems that impact on the achievement of disadvantaged gifted learners, such as low motivation, poor self-esteem and limited aspirations – including in the learner’s family and community. Such support is now integral to many programmes and to the American 2010 Pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Programming Standards[i] and England’s Institutional Quality Standards[ii]. These exemplify the gap between contemporary reality and the ‘traditional approach’ presented in the paper.

Systems Thinking and Quality Standards

I recently published a series of posts about the development and content of such Quality Standards[iii]. One might place them firmly in the ‘analytical’ tradition since they break down whole school gifted education into its components. In an ideal scenario, each component captures effective practice in a few brief statements that together create a ‘flexible framework’, solid enough to frame broad consensus on the nature of that practice but flexible enough to permit variation, and so to foster innovation rather than stifling it.

But they offer a simple and straightforward tool that all settings can use to self-evaluate their practice and plan for continuous improvement, not to mention their many potential benefits to those responsible for system-wide improvement. While I can – with some difficulty – envision a more organic and complex systems-driven model for whole school gifted education, I need some persuading that it could provide the basis for an equivalently valuable and accessible instrument.

The Quality of Research

I was involved with a 2008 study[iv] which, after sifting almost 20,000 research articles, concluded:

‘If research in the field of gifted and talented education is to influence practice then it is essential that the quality of research design and reporting be improved…’

This paper argues that too much research is methodologically suspect, but also that researchers caught in the analytical paradigm have only limited explanations for the shortcomings they encounter. There is no quantification of the relative impact of these two factors on research quality. Given the second, one might reasonably expect extensive evidence of high quality systems-based evaluations, but this is not forthcoming:

‘Although evaluations of programmes based on this process are only beginning, the reported outcomes are very positive. In one such evaluation (Grassinger et al 2010) concluded that mentoring can produce long-lasting effects when tailored to both the needs of the mentee and their specific environment‘

These are slim pickings. And why are evaluations only just beginning? Is it because systems-based programmes are struggling to find acceptance, or have they been introduced without proper evaluation?

Miscellaneous and Concluding Comments

  • Speaking as a systems novice, I do not understand how the boundaries are defined. The number of systems potentially affected by any given gifted education intervention is probably finite but potentially huge. Where do we draw the line and why? When considering the sub-systems within a gifted learner, at what level of granularity do we stop and, if we stop before we reach atoms and molecules, what is the justification for doing so?
  • There is increasing emphasis on the role and value of networks within gifted education and this seems broadly consistent with the systems approach, whether articulated by Peter Csermely[v] in relation to the Hungarian Talent Support Network and the aspiration to roll that out across the EU or, in a UK context, by the instigators of GT Voice, the national support network for all stakeholders in gifted education. Such developments arguably have an important place in a systemic model.
  • My knowledge of Twentieth Century London-based bands is much greater than my knowledge of systems theory and may even exceed my knowledge of gifted education! The Byrds and Nirvana are definitely American bands.

I see the value of systems-inspired thinking as a counterweight to the analytical tradition, but am not convinced of the case for replacing one with the other. Systems theory has been around since the 1920s and 30s, coexisting with gifted education for much of its lifespan. If it was destined to be the new paradigm, why is it taking so long? I have seen it suggested that there are powerful vested interests in the analytical paradigm because it shores up top-down solutions and directly benefits those in positions of power and authority. But that is not in itself a strong justification for the alternative. What is wrong with a third way that draws on the strengths of both traditions?



[i] National Association for Gifted Children (2010) Pre-K-Grade 12 Gifted Education Programming Standards. Downloadable at

[ii] The National Strategies (2010) Institutional Quality Standards (IQS) in Gifted and Talented (G&T) education – revised 2010, downloadable from

[iii] Gifted Phoenix (2011): A Comparative View of Gifted Education Quality Standards – Part 1, downloadable from; A Comparative View of Gifted Education Quality Standards – Part 2, downloadable from; Gifted Education Quality Standards: The Benefits Coda, downloadable from

[iv] Bailey R, Pearce G, Winstanley C, Sutherland M, Smith C, Stack N, Dickenson M (2008) A systematic review of interventions aimed at improving the educational achievement of pupils identified as gifted and talented. Report. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre,Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Downloadable at

[v] Csermely, Peter (2011) TEDxDanubia 2011 – Csermely Peter – The Tao of Talent, downloadable from

Gifted Phoenix Twitter Round-Up: Volume 6

Here is the sixth volume of approximately monthly round-ups of @GiftedPhoenix Twitter activity related to gifted education, English education policy and associated subjects.

It covers the period from 12 March to 4 April inclusive.

Once again I’ve altered the categorisation slightly. You will find sections on:

  • Gifted Education Worldwide, with sub-sections for each of the five continents
  • Gifted Education UK
  • Gifted Education Commentary and Research
  • Related Educational Issues, which is focused predominantly on developments in England and is broken down into several thematic subsections

The final section covers some material of interest to gifted educators but also extends into wider areas of domestic education policy.

As ever, I have only included tweets that contain a hyperlink to another source  (I haven’t rechecked all the links, so apologies if you experience any broken ones.)

Nearly all of these are my own tweets, but a few are modified tweets or retweets of originals sent by others. I have removed addresses and hashtags – except where these are integral to the tweet – and corrected a few typos.

Gifted Education Worldwide

IRATDE has announced the speakers for its April conference in Beijing, China:  – Mostly IRATDE’s own luminaries

The Concord Review offers writing advice for gifted students:

#gtchat returns on Fri 23 March Now sponsored and at 11pm (soon midnight) UK time. That’s not @GiftedPhoenix -friendly!

Here’s a start: Hoagies’ Gifted Distance Learning Programmes

Someone’s had a go at a gifted education timeline: – some gaps to fill

‘Bright’ – the Smart (Mensa) Newsletter for Bright Kids: March 2012 edition –

Twice Exceptional Newsletter March 26 edition:

Gifted Resources April Newsletter can be read online at


New post at GPS, “Gifted Education Awareness Week – Namibia”  by Silvia van Biljon – gifted education in Namibia

Namibia Gifted Education Awareness Week

Educating gifted learners in Nigeria: – mysteriously reposted 5 years after it was first written!

South Africa recognises the case for better targeted support for its gifted disadvantaged students:


Donna Ford called in US lawsuit alleging racial bias in a district’s gifted programme:

An Illinois District isn’t happy with its gifted education consultants from University of Virginia: – or their bill!

White paper from the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County:

Brilhantes por natureza gifted education in Brazil

Caribbean Science Foundation offers 4-week STEM summer school for gifted 15-17 year-olds in Barbados:

A district lottery in gifted education in Washington state:

A Democrat candidate for New York Mayor wants reform of the city’s gifted education services:

More Montgomery County debate:

The 2012 Acceleration Summit

Jamaican article likening placement tests for secondary school to a giant Ponzi scheme – some interesting parallels:

Argentina, Conference Gifted Education, Oct. 2012

CTD Blogpost on the Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholars Programme:

There’s scope for improvement in US talent development for sports:


Upcoming professional development workshops at the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE)

Bahrain is looking forward to the 12th Asia-Pacific Conference in Dubai this summer:

2012 Asia Pacific Conference in Dubai has unveiled its keynotes: – Albert is becoming ubiquitous!

Presentations on Iranian gifted education at the University of British Columbia:

Report into development of Arab knowledge societies – includes coverage of Jordanian gifted education:

Report on Saudi National Olympiad for Science Innovation, which comes under the Mawhiba umbrella:

The dire consequences of excessive grade inflation in Vietnam:

Huge profits can be made by tutors for the entrance exams to Vietnamese schools for gifted learners:

Much coverage of Malaysia’s Permata Pintar gifted education programme as a new complex is opened by the PM:

More on the Permata Pintar gifted programme in Malaysia:

And yet more on Permata Pintar:

Great idea from the Philippines – a fun run to raise funds to sponsor gifted learners:

Gifted education in Dubai and the Emirates:

Manilla: Special Ed teachers to attend 27 day intensive PD for Gifted Education


Support for minority and disadvantaged gifted students in North Island New Zealand:

Coverage of the upcoming giftEDnz Conference:

One participant’s report on the giftEDnz Conference in NZ:

Jill Bevan-Brown gets some recognition for her work on Maori gifted learners:

Departing ACT DG for Education identifies gifted education as a future priority for the Territory:


 Frenos a la promocion de la excelencia (II)

Frenos a la promocion de la excelencia (y III)

Talento, de que hablamos?

11 modificaciones para mejorar la escuela actual

La falta de atencion especializada frustra el futuro de 280.000 ninos  gifted en Espana

5 acciones que ayudari­an al desarrollo del talento

Un decalogo para que el talento, de una vez, despegue

Kurgan Oblast (no nor had I – – awards 4000 rouble (£86) prizes to 50 gifted learners:

Ole Kyed: La talentveiledere finne evnerike elever! – gifted education in Denmark:

Recap of Norwegian masters’ studies on gifted education (in Norwegian):

University of Tartu, Estonia celebrated EU Talent Day 2012 today  The rest of us are waiting to know the date!

Gifted Education UK

NUT has details of Labour’s SEN policy review: Will it outflank the SEN Green Paper by featuring 2e learners?

Education Select Committee has visited Singapore. Let’s hope they took in the gifted education programme:

Year 9 gifted learners to be rewarded with a trip to a Russell Group University –

Dux awards will pay for a pupil and a staff member to visit a RG university (of their choice?)

Dux awards are to raise aspirations. Odd that they don’t prioritise recipients of Pupil Premium:

DFE has published more details of its Dux scheme including these FAQs:

DFE press release on its new Dux scheme for high achievers and those with high potential:

NAGC press release on Dux scheme says fine, as long as it’s part of a coherent national strategy….

This blog just about covers it, thanks @robanthony01  – Elitist, tokenistic and pretentious….?

Negligible coverage of gifted (aka more able) learners in this new OFSTED report on moving English Forward:

DFE has published a page about its support for ‘academically more able pupils’:

Now DFE has published this page on ‘academically more able’ it can’t say it has no policy on gifted learners?

Martin Stephen: ‘Our education system…is doing far too little for the gifted and talented’:

National Science Learning Centre: Improving Gifted and Talented Children in Primary Science:

Hong Kong philanthropists queue to endow English universities: – How about a centre for gifted education?

Here’s the latest gtvoice Newsletter – April 2012 edition. Happy reading!

Year 9 gifted students at Lipson Community College Plymouth produce highly popular YouTube Revision Tutorials

Tony Sewell runs Generating Genius but his London Mayoral education inquiry entirely ignores gifted education

A fascinating (and excellently crafted) article about the Royal Ballet School:

Gove quotes Shenk, Syed, Gladwell with approval, but at least he doesn’t deny all genetic influence on ability

It depends what he means by ‘succeed’: @pwatsonmontrose on Gove on Shenk:

Alton College looks to have a very lively gifted education programme: – exemplary

David Miliband visited the UK NAGC offices today:

Direct link to new Sutton Trust Report: Open Access: Democratising Entry to Independent Day Schools:

80 independent schools support Sutton Trust Open Access Scheme ‘in principle’: – what does that mean exactly?

Sutton Trust would do better to focus on supporting state-funded schools to meet the needs of gifted students

David Milliband was surprised to find there is no longer a national strategy for gifted and talented children

Hope NAGC signed up David Miliband as a patron yesterday!

Fears that a devolved school-level service won’t match the current BANES APEX scheme for gifted learners:

Gifted Education: Commentary and Research

Improving working memory capacity by boosting students’ confidence: a paper:  and brief commentary:

Genetic predispositions towards athletic ability:

The neuroscience of metacognition:

Multiple talents, multiple passions, burnout, parts 1: and 2: by Douglas Eby

I thought this a neat metaphor for the current state of gifted education in (too) many schools worldwide:

James Borland revisits his familiar position on gifted education: which I outlined in this post:

Borland on Problematizing Gifted Education part 2 Preaching to the converted here (and he uses ‘struthious’)

Borland: Part 3 of ‘Problematizing Gifted Education’:

The implications of neuroscience for personalised learning:

The Hambrick/Kaufman debate on nature/nurture: (The Hymer/@GiftedPhoenix debate is coming your way soon!)

Interesting slideshow on the genetics of talent development:

Evidence that cognitive training’s effectiveness varies according to personality:

Observation as the parent of a gifted child – laziness:

Seems like you can download various Terman Study materials from this Harvard database:

Distinguishing Aspergers and Hyperlexia:

Neuroscience and the bilingual brain –

A Prezi on talent development in sport:

Are Habits the Enemy of Mastery?

More about orchid and dandelion children, aka the sensitivity hypothesis:

Edweek article by and about a twice-exceptional student:

New Blog Post: Moving Towards Coaching Expertise

Grit. Duckworth & Peterson: resilience more important than IQ or conscientiousness in predicting success

Unwrapping the Gifted: on the benefits students perceive from their participation in gifted programmes:

The Trouble with Experts:

New post at GPS, “Happy Birthday, Gifted Parenting Support”

Renzulli on personalised learning:  – would he be selling something?

I like this April Fool’s joke for gifted education types – imagine legacy testing applied to our own 11+!

A neat neuroscience parody from yesterday:

Conscientiousness, Education and Longevity of High Ability Individuals by Peter A Savelyev, March 2012

The case for 2e in a nutshell – – why any decent SEN policy must cater for gifted learners

Maybe it’s time to propose a follow-up? Not sure who would fund it though…

Some friends from London Zoo

Related Educational Issues

Fair Access to HE and social mobility

RG will expand from 20 current members to include: Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary and York

New ‘state of the nation’ post on HE from @wonkhe begins ‘The Coalition Government is in terminal decline’

How does Russell Group expansion impact on Govt progress in increasing FSM progression to RG universities?

Scots universities to face statutory fair access targets? or OFFA? There’s only one way to find out!

New Campaign for Science and Engineering briefing on socio-economic diversity in STEM higher education:

More about the partnership between Pembroke College Oxford and Brooke House 6FC Hackney:

Wonder if there’s any data about how successful children of Oxbridge graduates and dons are in securing Oxbridge places

Commons oral PQ on HE admissions: (Col 359)

Work experience as a possible break on fair access:

What exactly will ‘competing collaboration’ mean for QMU/Warwick’s fair access operation? Unconvinced:

Mmm – a bursary you can only spend in university-approved outlets: – a bit nanny-stateish don’t you think?

Commons oral PQ on careers guidance: (Col 365) DFE will publish statutory guidance for schools ‘very soon’

Oxbridge admits to contextualised admissions policies. Welsh wariness of league tables hinder their use:

OFSTED are resisting the suggestion that they check on the impartiality of schools’ IAG provision:

Succinct NYT treatment of education and social mobility in the US:

NUS condemns the National Scholarship Programme; reminds us there’s been no response to the Hughes Report:

Work Experience and UK University Admissions: Comparing UCAS Statements by School Type:

UCU Scotland contemplates a ‘Texas 10%’ -type scheme to support fair access:

DFE publishes statutory careers guidance for schools: – there a weakish ‘expectation schools will have regard to’ it

2011 applications/offers to/for Oxbridge, RG and other HEIs by independent, state-funded schools and FEIs: (Col 890W)

Seems somehow counter-intuitive that post-16 maths, rather than arts/humanities is the bigger brake on social mobility:

Ouch – Tony Watts tears the new Careers Guidance to shreds

Oxford gives more offers to students from disadvantaged schools

So where’s the final report of the UCAS Admission Process Review? It’s not where it should be, here:

Since most of us knew PQA was an unworkable non-starter, hasn’t the UCAS review been a sad waste of time and money?

Bottom line for the Government is whether more FSM candidates are admitted to Oxford, a measure Oxford declines to use:

This looks an important Fair Access report by @jakeanders:  But where is it? Not here:

Direct link to new report by @jakeanders What’s the link between household income and going to university?

Direct link to valuable University Alliance Report: The Way We’ll Work: But nothing on implications for schools

Direct link to HEFCE Circular: Recurrent Grants and Student Number Controls for 2012-13:

We need more analysis of the benefits and the disbenefits for students (rather than HEIs) of this AAB policy

BIS SFR:  Participation Rates in HE 2006-2011:

Performance indicators for drop outs and widening participation for all universities here:

Wouldn’t it be nice to know how many successful AAB applicants to HEIs with poor fair access records are disadvantaged?

Just 5 of 24 Russell Group universities have met their benchmarks for recruiting disadvantaged students:

Members wanted for Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission – deadline 27 April:

University drop-out rates are as high as 46.2% (UEL): dropouts are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds:

How competition for scarce post-16 students militates against unbiased IAG: – worrying

Is there a halfway house towards PQA – making current arrangements work better:

US proposal for entry to elite HE institutions by lottery: – as an instrument for social mobility

OFFA will publish its 2013-14 Access Agreements guidance on 19 April:

The Minerva Project: an elite online university. Website here:  – commentary here:

HEFCE boss Langlands continues to highlight threat of AAB policy to social mobility despite BIS pressure:

Narrowing Gaps

DFE seeks advisers to generate case studies of how high-performing schools use Pupil Premium to narrow attainment gaps:

Why do rich kids do better in school than poor kids? Neuroscience and cognitive science of poverty

DFE won’t extend Pupil Premium to all GRT pupils though their GRT stakeholder group says they should: (Col WA12)

The cost effectiveness of socio-economic school integration:

New Pupil Premium distribution favours less disadvantaged areas:  Another reason why it should be attached to each pupil

Holland Park gets a big puff as a place to send posh kids:  – This encapsulates our class-ridden educational myopia

How New Zealand is using change teams to narrow achievement gaps in its schools: – should we do that?

Interesting US take on the achievement gap: now we have to worry about the gap between the rich and middle earners too!

There’s a DFE powerpoint: ‘Deprivation and the Pupil Premium: what you need to know’ available from this page:

The Arts and Achievement in At-risk Youth – Findings from 4 Longitudinal Studies:

Poor pupils in weak schools face a double whammy – – but so do those in schools where there are few other poor pupils!

For me it’s clear that the purpose of the Premium is gap-narrowing rather than budget backfilling:

Defying the odds: gifted and talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (a NZ paper):

Assessment and qualifications

 Odd KS2 L6 tests story: Even if 75% of schools have ordered papers, can’t believe 15% of pupils will take them

Here is the ARA booklet for KS2 – – L6 entrants ‘should already be demonstrating attainment above level 5’

It’s very hard to believe 86K pupils will take L6 KS2 tests: when ARA booklet says they should be attaining above L5?

Judging by the similarity with this site –  – I think WC tests must now be owned by Martin Ripley

DFE is reportedly considering a (performance table?) measure of percentage of GCSE A*/A grades achieved:

Gibb: ‘In the future you could have [league table] columns that show the proportion of A* and A grades’ (Q643)

If DFE does include an A*/A measure in performance tables, we must be able to see breakdown by FSM/non-FSM:

I so want to see the FSM/non-FSM breakdown of high attainers in the schools Gove says have no attainment gap:

And also the breakdown of GCSE A*/A grades between FSM and non-FSM, but maybe Mr Gibb will grant that wish!

Early GCSE entry article features Kent school using RE as Yr10 dress rehearsal since no ‘detrimental impact on grades’:

Cambridge Assessment research (where?) says academics want more advanced A level content for gifted students:

Proposals to extend the scope of NAEP, including more on learners’ background characteristics:

Am I alone in wondering how a higher literacy target at end KS2 will help those not meeting the current, lower target?

Lords oral PQ on the GCSE equivalence of the engineering diploma:  (Col 388)

Proportion of pupils achieving KS2 L4 and L5 who didn’t achieve 5 GCSEs at C or above including E + Ma by LA (Col 428W)

Achievement of 5+ GCSE grades A*-C by IDACI decile over the last 3 years: (Col. 656W)

This morning’s Select Committee session on the administration of exams is available for viewing here in all its glory:

Heads are worried that too many children will fail the phonics test: – A highly dubious stance methinks…

NUT threatens a boycott if phonics test results find their way into performance tables:

An earlier Chevalier study on school effects on test scores: and today’s write-up of a new paper:

@dylanwiliam isn’t on Ofqual’s new Standards Advisory Group and nor is @warwickmansell: – usual suspects otherwise

Uncorrected evidence from Education Select Committee 21 March session on 15-19 exams with Gibb, Stacey, Spielman:

DFE is requesting expressions of interest in a 3-year longitudinal evaluation of the phonics test: – deadline 4 April!

You couldn’t make it up! NYC bans dinosaurs from its assessments for fear that creationists will be offended:

New DFE Research: Evaluation of A Level and GCSE Changes (2008 changes including A level A*):

Don’t we need Ofqual or DFE to publish the full text of this A Levels letter?  – so we can see exactly what is intended?

We’ve published letters between Michael Gove MP and Glenys Stacey along with a report on A levels

Gove A level letter carefully avoids the cost to HE of development and approval processes: – a likely stumbling block?

Clear tension in Gove A Level letter between wanting no centrally determined criteria and need for core ‘design rules’:

Direct link to Ofqual’s IPSOS/MORI research on views of A level suitability:

Jonathan Plucker on PISA and international comparisons:

Curriculum and Pedagogy

The NC Review Expert Panel were contracted for a full year; Tim Oates’ contract continues only to August 2012 (Col 39W)

Telegraph manages a story out of the fact that proportion of classes set by ability is largely unchanged:

@SchoolDuggery Not sure how research on the impact of redoublement is relevant to the wider question of setting!:

Direct instruction versus discovery learning – a US review of the research evidence:

The US review of evidence summarises a 2006 article which got a robust response here

Setting: the perfect example of why we need an evidence-based middle way between autonomy and prescription:

Direct link to RSA Report: Re-thinking the Importance of Teaching, curriculum and collaboration in an era of localism:

RSA report points out the risks associated with greater curricular autonomy: – spot on, and applies more widely too

The EU Select Committee report that calls for more compulsory MFL teaching in schools:

The Mayor’s London Curriculum could usefully include a study of the history of riots and rioting in our Capital City:

‘It’s ‘difficult…to really care about anything inside a school…so much less engineered than a decent computer game’

Still don’t understand this CofE angst over RE in curriculum: – they had their chance to use ‘Bishop power’ in the HofL

Maths Extension/Enrichment and Edmodo – – a proposal to extend able students

This looks addictive – a library of interactive science simulations:

Carol Ann Tomlinson on brain research and differentiated instruction – notes:

Is handwriting suffering as computers become more prevalent inside and outside the classroom?

@danosirra: My views on the failing handwriting skills piece.

Liz Truss to argue that post-16 subject funding weightings should be used as supply side incentive to support maths:

Yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on 16-18 maths education: (Col 334WH)

Revised Early Years Framework to be announced today: – surely a bit late for implementation from September?

Written ministerial statement on the EYFS from Teather:

Direct link to the revised EYFS Framework:

The same old debate rages over the revised EYFS, between free-form and standards brigades: – is there no middle ground?

The risk of a 2-year vacuum in ICT in some schools: – is that a likely response in many?

Expanded MEI Further Maths Programme will support CPD for teachers to stretch and enrich KS4 maths (Col 341WH)

Updated Commons library Standard Note on School Sport:

Will the Sage Gateshead succeed in its bid to become the North East’s Music Hub: – a shoe in?

Lords Oral PQ on MFL in schools: (Col 1414)

The NUT response to the Expert Panel’s Report for the NC Review, including demolition of questionable Chapter 8:

Feature on the IB’s Primary Years Programme: – Can see this taking off in primary academies…

Ofsted’s latest survey report on Art, Craft and Design Education:

Meanwhile, Michael Rosen is concerned that, in relation to grammar at least, journalism trumps academic research:

Willingham-style FAQs on learning styles:


More detail about the debate over a possible Sevenoaks GS annex (including links to other useful sources):

Lords Oral PQ on grammar school satellites: (Col  1244)

With only 164 GS surviving, even a decision by 100% to create an annex is hardly ‘opening the floodgates’:

Knole Academy in Sevenoaks advertises its own grammar stream and gifted education credentials:  Touche!

The Mail fills in the background on the Sevenoaks grammar annex: Some evidence of molehills made mountains in all this

Fiona Millar’s almost right. Labour should use GS academies’ funding agreements to increase their FSM intakes:

Sensible perspective on the current grammar schools furore by @conorfryan –

53% of children entering selective admission tests have been tutored according to new survey:

Assuming tuition works, selecting in the tutored means preferring the committed to the intelligent: Is that acceptable?

Academies and Free Schools

More details of enforced primary academy sponsors now due this Wednesday –

The reason why Graham Stuart is so interested in a middle tier of support for academies:

London SE16 may soon have a concentration of free schools:  – Now, what’s the right collective noun?

DFE has 40 posts allocated to the brokerage of sponsored academies: (Col 33W)

Did the London Academy for Excellence ever explore potential collaboration with NewhamVIC? – Doesn’t look like it!

Here’s the partially pro-free schools article by Adonis in the New Statesman:

Twigg’s speech today on ‘unleashing innovation in schools’ mentions consultation on a ‘middle tier’ for academies:

Seldon still banging on the ‘independent schools should sponsor academies’ drum:  – time he changed his tune?

Is educational provision in Newcastle an exemplar of ‘disruptive innovation’ or an unholy mess? You decide:

So we can expect the CofE to compete with the big academy chains: – head to head with the United Church Schools Trust?

Lords Grand Committee Debate on the regulations governing alternative provision academies: (Col GC149)

Say what you like about Seckford (well don’t actually) but at least they’ve improved my grasp of legal Latin!

Sheffield LA is developing a list of approved academy sponsors for its schools:

Matthew Taylor on free schools: – if they are engines of risky innovation, we have to be prepared for many to fail

Schools Commissioner is reportedly encouraging more FE colleges to sponsor primary academies: Desperation or sensible?

HMC fights shy of academy sponsorship (again): – says 15-20 schools may buddy up with existing chains instead

Lord Hill of Oareford drops all that in favour of plain ‘Jonathan’ to defend academies in the New Statesman:

It would be good to see some more economic analysis of the costs and benefits of free schools:

More legal shenanigans over Downhills:

Free schools opened in 2011 and currently in development spend an average £105K on development costs: (Col 1004W)

Will part of the payment to councils for keeping children of troubled families in school be devolved to academies?

Direct link to the Reform/Schools Network publication on Releasing the Potential of Academies:

About 50% of free schools due to open in September 2012 have confirmed sites: (Col 1032W)

Ooohhh  – E-Act chair resigns – I’d love to be a fly on the wall at their board meetings!

It’s unworthy of the Guardian to go after @Samfr They also report a mysterious bounceback by Bruce Liddington at E-Act:

39% of academies believe the existing (overly prescriptive?) national curriculum gives sufficient curricular freedom:

What now for failing Academy? (Marlowe in Ramsgate):

Missed that Seldon now plans an academy chain of his own and is in cahoots with @jamesosh :

The Tiger Primary Free School in Maidstone will, if approved, embrace Mandarin and the Tiger Mother philosophy

Update on IoE and Birmingham University plans for university teaching schools: latter has a fair access agenda

Academies required to teach national curriculum? Answer can differ according to this DFE note:

The prescience of Christine Blower? (see last sentence) Tweeted this at the time and recollect a denial

FoI response outlines the official process of identifying academy sponsors:

NUT warns schools could be fully privatised within 3 years:  Labour needs a properly worked response to that eventuality

Welcome to the Academies ‘speed commission’:  though the commissioners are a bit usual suspectish and speed = 9 months!

Teachers and Teacher Education

Watch Nick Gibb and Education Select Committee on teacher supply, recruitment and retention from 9.30am here:

Uncorrected oral transcript of Education Select Committee’s 5 March evidence session on teacher recruitment/retention:

Uncorrected Education Committee evidence from Nick Gibb’s 14/3 session on teacher recruitment, training and retention:

2012 International Summit on Teaching Profession starts today:  – and blog from John Bangs:

Direct link to OECD study: Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century:

Brief report on the international summit on the teaching profession:  – Next one’s in Amsterdam

This is Treasury’s advice to pay review bodies on local pay: – seems totally to ignore vast hidden administrative cost

TES editorial undervalued heads The paradox is they’re deemed failures as school leaders but lauded as system leaders

@brianlightman on the ‘toxic narrative’ in the TES:

National College will shortly announce 2nd tranche of Teaching Schools: -100 including 39 primaries, 16 special schools

Portrait of a stalinist ‘superhead’: Presumably the antithesis of ‘moral purpose’ (though I hate that hackneyed phrase)

Arne Duncan wriggles over publication of teacher performance


Interview with Teach for America’s Research Director:


Para 2.4.5 of the School Funding Reform paper suggests the new National Funding Formula is only an interim measure:

Presumably, private investors’ interest in running a college for profit will depend on the return on their investment?

School funding plans to be announced this week: – a staging post towards universal personal budgets (aka vouchers)?

Son of PFI and ‘off balance sheet borrowing’: – progress on a response to the collapse of capital budgets

Admissions and School Places

So the ‘sensible 50% limit on Catholic admissions’ letter was a leak:  NB that Government sometimes comments on leaks!

DfE sensibly challenges 19th Century-style plans for a Catholic silo school in Richmond:

London Oratory falls foul of Local Government Ombudsman over faith-based admissions:

New DFE statistical release on secondary school applications

and offers:

The much-reduced number of primary schools (5,500 fewer than 1970s) makes it harder to respond to bulges in demand:

Reviews Research and Reports

@Innovation_Unit: Our 10 Schools for the 21st Century:

Really interesting stuff in this presentation by economist Ludger Woessmann on education. Esp slides 9 +14.

Eric Hanushek at Policy Exchange last night

A couple of new CEP reports on implementing school improvement grant programmes in the US: and

Upcoming review of C of E education: and new logo. I thought they already had  one of those…

Direct link to C of E Review: The Church School of the Future:

DFE’s Schools Research newsletter for March 2012:

Klein/Rice chaired Task Force Report on US Education Reform and National Security:

Can only find this ‘preliminary and incomplete’ version of Allen+Burgess paper on inspection of underperforming schools

Direct link to final version of that Allen+Burgess paper on inspection I covered earlier:

Where you’ll find the Riots Panel report when it is finally, formally published today:

Direct link to the National Trust Report on Natural Childhood: – including treatment of ‘nature deficit disorder’

Here’s the IoE’s summary of the EPPSE 3-14 study’s findings:

Here’s DFE’s Research Brief on the EPPSE 3-14 findings, including on homework:

New DFE research: EPPSE 3-14 – Final Report from KS3 Phase:

New DFE research: Understanding School Financial Decisions: – schools need incentives to make more strategic decisions

Education Sector report: Off the Clock, about the impact of extended learning time on school improvement:

TNTP paper on Greenhouse Schools – Cultures where teachers and students thrive:

Is social science too wedded to empirical scientific research models? – unprovable theoretical models also have value

Central Government

HEFCE employs 247FTE and projects 2011-12 running costs approaching £21m: (Col 230W)

Interesting insights here for DFE watchers:

ASCL explains why OFSTED will not achieve significant sustainable school improvement through bully-boy tactics:

DFE appears to do its social media monitoring in-house, while relying on external suppliers for other media: (Col 768W)

I rather like the Wilshaw idea of reintroducing district HMI: – unfortunately he’s queered his own pitch slightly…

HMCI adopts a more emollient tone – direct link to yesterday’s speech: – better late than never?

LibDem Voice article calls for Independent Commission to review OFSTED’s ‘ignorant and illegal bullying of schools’:

More than 1 in 7 public sector jobs will be eliminated by 2017:

A ‘Public Sector Complexity Review’ shows BiS is the most complex of 7 large government departments:

DFE has released its latest staff survey results today –

The Framework Document for the National College marking its transformation into an executive agency of DfE:

And here is the Framework Document for the Teaching Agency, son of TDA:

Good balanced treatment of the Wilshavian approach by @jeevanvasagar: – the next 3 months are critical I think

HMCI Wilshaw and his press minders continue the process of mending bridges with the profession:

So farewell then GTCE – – I never quite understood what you were for….

ATL conference to debate a motion expressing grave concern over OFSTED’s ParentView website:

New DFE Statutory Guidance on the Role of Director of Children’s Services and Lead Member:

DFE has just published an updated schedule for the publication of statistics up to September 2013:


The importance of educational vision, mission and values: – applies at organisational level too!

US piece on the (poor) quality of education journalism and the emerging field of data journalism:

The incidence of Cadet Forces in independent and state schools: (Col WA246)

The local authorities with the best and worst attendance records 2005-2011: (Col WA245)

Twigg envisages schools as innovation hubs, but needs to explain how the network will be supported to work effectively

The Emerging Landscape of Educational Delivery Models, part 1: and part 2:

You can review and watch ASCL conference speeches by clicking the links on this page:

Boris Johnson doth protest too much. What else would a strategic education role mean except the reinvention of ILEA?

Haringey names its Education Commission: – includes TES Editor Gerard Kelly, Jim Rose and Graham Badman

The post-Election public expenditure squeeze quantified, plus a 2013 spending review: – you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Lords Grand Committee debate on the regulations governing pupil searches:  (Col GC144)


April 2012


The Sutton Trust Open Access Scheme

This post is a critique of a Sutton Trust paper published on 29 March 2012: ‘Open Access: Democratising entry to Independent Day Schools’.

It proposes needs-blind admissions and means-tested fees for all pupils at specified selective independent schools. The least advantaged would have their fees met entirely by the Government, the most advantaged would continue to pay full fees and the remainder would pay a proportion of the fees with the Government making up the difference.

The primary objective seems to be to provide a route to greater social mobility, rather than improving the education of gifted learners, though they are the instrument through which the transformation is to be achieved.

This post considers the Open Access proposal on its own terms, and finds it wanting. The impact on key populations affected by such a scheme – including gifted disadvantaged learners – is very unlikely to be unremittingly positive, so this adds further downside.

Overall, I conclude that the case for introducing Open Access is weak. It does not stand up to scrutiny and should not be pursued further.


The Sutton Trust is a charity established by Sir Peter Lampl to promote social mobility through education. It has concentrated on improving the chances of academically able young people from relatively modest backgrounds to progress to competitive universities and on into the professions.

From 2000-2007, the Trust, in conjunction with the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), piloted a scheme at The Belvedere School, an independent school for girls located in Liverpool.

The pilot was to test the idea of admitting pupils entirely on merit, on a needs-blind basis, but to charge fees on a means-tested basis, so enabling more academically able young people from less advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds to attend the School.

At the end of this period, in September 2007, the school became a state-funded Academy, jointly sponsored by the GDST and the HSBC bank. It was the first independent school in England to become an academy.

The Trust has published a series of studies related to the Belvedere Pilot and proposing its extension throughout England:

This 2012 Paper is just the latest on the same theme.

I concede that this critique is influenced by ideological reservations: I firmly believe that the optimal way to support gifted learners is to ensure that they receive the challenge and support they need within the state education system, rather than transferring them into the independent sector.

I do not believe that exporting them into independent schools is necessarily and inevitably in their best interests as learners (though it may be advantageous to some). It is certainly not in the best interests of the state sector as a whole, though it may benefit the independent sector significantly.

But, ideology aside, ‘Open Access: Democratising entry to Independent Day Schools’ does not bear close examination. It is a rather shoddy reproduction of arguments already advanced in the preceding papers. It does not deserve to be taken seriously as a viable and efficient way of supporting gifted learners.

The Belvedere Pilot

The new paper describes the Belvedere pilot scheme in glowing terms. Beginning in 2000, it lasted for seven years, so a single cohort of 11-year-olds who entered the School in September 2000 benefited throughout their school careers, while subsequent cohorts benefited up to the time that the School became an Academy in September 2007.

Belvedere was chosen for the pilot because it served a socially and ethnically mixed area and so would draw in learners from all backgrounds. In the first year there were 367 applications for 72 places, of which around 50 were from Belvedere’s own Junior School and other independent schools.

We are not told what proportions were admitted from state and independent sectors respectively in this first year but, by the third year:

‘applications were received from 129 state schools, which provided 92% of the year’s intake. Twenty-nine very able girls from the 111 applicants from the two poorest postcode categories were offered places, as were six of the 15 applicants from the multi-racial inner city.’

Over 30% of those who declared their father’s occupational status reported a manual background or unemployment. (It is not clear whether this applies to all years or just the third.) Over ‘the five years of open access’ – this presumably means the first five years of the scheme – one third of admissions were eligible for free school meals.

The selection process is not properly explained. We are told only that:

  • It was designed to assess ‘potential’ as well as current and past performance;
  • ‘some allowance’ was made for the applicants’ previous school and home background, although this stopped short of ‘positive discrimination’;
  • Verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests were used, while English and maths tests ‘were used as a cut off’;
  • An admissions committee ‘decided offers based on merit alone’.

About one-third of entrants had their fees fully paid and 38% had part of their fees paid, leaving around 30% of parents continuing to pay full fees. ‘At maturity’ the total cost of the scheme – ie of subsidising fees for all eligible pupils – was about £2m per year.

Assuming that there were 72 places in each year and 30% of pupils had their fees entirely paid by their parents, this suggests that, after seven years, about 350 pupils benefited from the subsidy, averaging around £5,700 a year.

The paper claims that, since only 0.5% of all state school pupils in Liverpool transferred to Belvedere annually, this did not create a significant ‘creaming off’ of talent from other secondary schools, so there was no deleterious effect on the state system.

In 2005, 99% of the first cohort achieved 5 good GCSEs. They went on to ‘gain exceptional A level results’ in 2007 and ‘most entered top universities, including some to Oxbridge’.

This is declared to be ‘convincing proof of the success of the scheme and a vindication of the admissions policy’, though we are not told how examination results and university entry correlated with students’ backgrounds.

The earlier publications provide further information

Published in November 2001, ‘Educational Apartheid: A Practical Way Forward’ is the first paper to call for the extension of the Belvedere Pilot. It references an initial Evaluation of the Scheme, published in December 2000, which is no longer available on the Sutton Trust website or elsewhere online, as far as I can establish.

Much of the material in the 2012 paper is taken wholesale from this 2001 publication or from the 2004 version ‘Open Access: A Practical Way Forward – New Developments’, but we also learn that:

  • the verbal and non-verbal reasoning selection tests were developed by the NFER, while the English and maths tests were set by the School;
  • the scheme cost £178K in its first year but, because of its success, was subsequently more expensive than anticipated.

Further detail and some fascinating insights are provided in the evaluation report ‘Five Years On: Open Access to Independent Education’:

  • Only 304 of the original 367 applicants in 2000 actually sat the entrance tests – 257 of them (85%) were from state schools; 113 offers of places were made, 84 of them (74%) to state school applicants; 69 places were accepted, 47 of them (68%) by state school applicants.
  • Only about 56% of offers to state school applicants were accepted. In 2001, 52% of those not accepting an offered place cited financial reasons. The report comments: ‘Even with the generous support of the Sutton Trust and the Girls’ Day School Trust they still did not think they could afford to accept.’
  • 36.2% of pupils had their fees paid in full in 2000, 35.2% in 2001 but only 25.4% in 2002. The comparable figures for part-paid fees were 34.8%, 43.7% and 36.6% respectively. Naturally enough, the vast majority of places were rejected by those who would have been liable for partial or full fees.
  • In 2005, 23.3% of the first cohort, now in Year 11, were eligible for free school meals, but 51.7% of Year 7 in 2005 were eligible;
  • 62.7% of 2005 GCSE entries were at Grades A*/A but there were clear differences in achievement according to the fee-paying status of the learners, even though there were no significant differences in their assessed ability on entry to the School:

‘In terms of GCSE results overall the girls from low-income homes (those with their fees fully paid) did less well than either the part or full fee payers.  Differences in this direction also emerge in the English, maths and science GCSEs though not reaching statistical significance in the individual examinations.  Quite why a group of similar ability to two other groups should fare less well at GCSE requires further investigation. At this stage, we can only speculate.  It could be due to differences in the girls’ aspirations or to their home circumstances.’

This appears to show that transfer into independent schools is not quite the panacea suggested in the other papers. One might reasonably conclude that the educational effects are not, of themselves, sufficient to cancel out the effects of home background and environment.

Overall though, the evaluation is overwhelmingly positive. Part of the conclusion reads:

‘But The Sutton Trust’s formal proposal to Government to fund a larger scale trial of Open Access at a dozen schools, and the regular discussions with ministers that have followed it, have fallen on interested but, to date, deaf ears.  Open Access has many attractions: it is successful, cost-effective, and has the support of parents and schools, both, in practice, in Liverpool and, in principle, more widely.  It does, however, cut to the heart of Labour Party ideology in two ways.  First, it requires the academic selection of students at age 11.  Secondly, it would involve the state paying for students to attend private schools…

…Nevertheless, the sort of fundamental, far-reaching and transformative partnership envisaged under Open Access appears to remain a bridge too far for the current administration.  The Sutton Trust continues to bring the project to the attention of politicians and policy thinkers of all parties, and to stress that dogma should not get in the way of the development of successful educational initiatives.  For the moment The Belvedere Scheme remains a demonstration of what could be achieved were there the will.’

But, although we learn a fair amount about the impact of the pilot, there is precious little information about the detail of the scheme, especially about the selection instruments deployed and the fees and means-testing regime.

What is clear from the way the pilot ended is that, with this model in this particular school, there was little prospect of the scheme becoming self-sustaining: it seems to require a continuous funding injection from one source or another. But is this necessarily the case in all settings?

The nearest I can find to a creative commons picture of Peter Lampl courtesy of HowardLake

Why did Belvedere become an Academy?

The transfer to academy status meant that fees were no longer chargeable to any parent and the School became non-selective, except for 10% of pupils selected on the basis of an aptitude for modern foreign languages.

The new paper says this change of status ‘was no reflection on[Belvedere’s] success as an Open Access independent school’, but the fact remains that – for whatever reason – The Sutton Trust, the GDST and Belvedere felt unable to adopt their experiment as a lasting scheme.

The 2006 Evaluation: ‘Five Years On: Open Access to Independent  Education’  includes an explanation of sorts from the Chief Executive of the GDST:

‘As we move forward, we need to consider how similar success can be secured on a sustainable basis over the coming years.  When we embarked on the pilot project with the Sutton Trust, we of course hoped that the concept of Open Access would be taken up by Government, and not only continued at The Belvedere, but also rolled out to other independent day schools.  This has not materialised, and in the short term we needed to consider how the initiative’s central idea – bringing academic excellence to a broad social mix of pupils – could be integrated into the state system so that many more families can benefit.

We believe that the Government’s Academies programme offers us the best way ahead.  Although moving from private to state funding is a huge – and not uncontroversial – step, the Academy model offers us independence and flexibility in partnership with the maintained system.  Crucially, it will allow the GDST, with its many years of experience of running high-performing schools, to maintain its stake in The Belvedere and for our expertise to inform its continued development.’

So, having once embarked on the pilot, the partners were entirely reliant on the Government agreeing to take on the cost. When that agreement could not be secured, they had no exit strategy other than transfer the School into the state sector, which rather defeated the original object of creating a sustainable long-term future based on open access to an independent school.

The fact that this happened once begs the question whether it might not happen again, especially since any Government that agreed to adopt such a scheme would be unable to commit successor governments to continuous and never-ending financial support. If the money was switched off at any point, the only real options would be to close the schools or to shift them into the state sector.

That assumes, of course, that there is no alternative self-sustaining model which could rely on funding generated by the schools themselves…

The Substance of the Open Access Proposal

There is very little detail about how such a scheme would operate, suggesting that this has not been properly worked through. The assumption is presumably that the Belvedere model can be applied unchanged in all other settings. That is a big and untested assumption.

The substantive elements are set out below, together with a critical commentary:

  • A new Open Access sector would be established comprising some 100 volunteer selective independent day schools. The paper doesn’t say so but all would need to admit pupils at 11 rather than through later Common Entrance arrangements, in order to fit with state primary provision. Boarding schools would not be included. The paper claims that 80 schools are signed up to support the scheme ‘in principle’, but only a handful are named in the accompanying press notice (Westminster, City of London Boys, King Edwards Birmingham, Lady Eleanor Holles, Manchester Grammar, the Grammar School at Leeds and the Royal Grammar School Newcastle.) The 100 schools would have to pass an unspecified academic quality threshold. They would remain independent but would be subject to light-touch monitoring to ensure proper use of government funding. There are, apparently, no criteria governing the geographical location or distribution of the schools, or whether they are single sex or co-educational. This, together with likely differences in different schools’ intakes, would mean that places would be unevenly located around the country. In some areas there would be none; in others, a relatively large number of places would be available. It follows that the scheme would take a different proportion of the most able learners in different locations – it would not serve the top 1% nationally by ability but would be a ‘postcode lottery’.
  • Admission to each school would be competitive, but with a ‘more sophisticated’ selection process ‘than the old 11-plus’. Although the Belvedere experience gives some clues as to how this might operate, there is no further information about what it would entail. It is not clear, for example, how the system would ensure that selection methods are not coachable – or, alternatively, whether ‘coachability’ is acceptable on the basis that it acts as a test of drive and commitment. If there is an element to test ‘potential’ it is not explained how this is substantively different to tests employed for entry to existing selective schools. It is not clear what allowances will be made, if any, for background or previous school experience. In short, the claim of sophistication rings rather hollow.
  • The families of successful applicants would be charged fees on a sliding scale which is not set out. The fees would presumably remain under the control of each school and reflect current charges, meaning that there would be considerable variation. We are told only that the richest would pay full fees and the poorest nothing – and that assessments would include assets as well as income, to avoid the ‘distressed gentlefolk’ dimension of the Assisted Places Scheme. On the basis of the Belvedere experience, it is estimated that about two-thirds of pupils would require their fees to be paid in full or in part, which would be equivalent to half of the total ‘take’ from fees. This 50% contribution would be paid by the state, with parents contributing the other 50%. (Incidentally, the accompanying press notice says that only 30% would pay full fees, so 70% would require some or all of their fees to be paid – even an increase of 3% will affect the costings significantly.)
  • The Sutton Trust’s estimates of cost are based on the assumption that these 100 schools will together have 62,000 pupils on roll. This is presumably the ‘steady’ state calculation, based on seven year groups in each school. This works out, rather oddly, at 89 pupils per year group per school. It may be that the calculation assumes 100 pupils per year group in Years 7-11 and 60 per year group in Years 12-13. We are not told. Each pupil is assumed to cost £11,000 per year, which is presumably an average fee for independent selective day schools in England. The total cost in ‘steady state’ is therefore given as £680m a year, 50% of which would be paid by the Government, ie £340m. The cost in the first year would be around £49m, for a single year group, and would rise by annual increments of £49m over the next 6 years until steady state had been reached.
  • The Trust suggests that this cost could be reduced by offsetting savings: £31m in steady state from the saving against the cost of a pupil in a state school (given as £6K a year including capital expenditure); and a further £129m assuming that ‘one-third of the vacated places in state schools are taken by ‘displaced’ private pupils’. I cannot follow this calculation, perhaps because some of the working has been lost in the translation from previous versions (see below). The state school saving includes a capital element, even though the capital cost remains unchanged regardless of the fact that pupils transfer elsewhere. There is a cost attached to the surplus places generated in the state sector which might be partially offset by an influx of displaced independent school pupils (though this is unlikely), However, to the extent that not all the surplus places are filled, an additional cost is incurred, not a saving. Moreover, no cost is given to cover the administration of this scheme, the ‘light touch’ monitoring, or any evaluation. Even more critically, there is no reference to the fact that, whatever the cost to the taxpayer, this is essentially a taxpayer subsidy to the independent sector, purporting to guarantee 50% of their fee income in perpetuity. No wonder 80 schools are signed up in principle!

The Justification for the Scheme

The Paper advances several different arguments in favour of the scheme and why it would be preferable to certain alternative solutions. It also seeks to face down likely objections to Open Access.

It begins by outlining the problem that Open Access is intended to solve. This is not the optimal educational provision for gifted learners, but ‘the divide between state and independent education’ which impacts on social mobility.

The independent sector contains ‘the most successful academic schools in the country (the 164 selective state schools are entirely ignored). It is conceded that there are ‘state schools achieving outstanding results’ but this is immediately set aside.

There is reference to:

‘An analysis for the Sutton Trust of the 2010 [sic] PISA international comparisons [which] reveals that the brightest ten per cent of state school students at age 15 are 1.1 years of schooling behind their private school counterparts’

But there is no explanation of the methodology by which this conclusion is derived from PISA 2009 data, which relates to tests of science, maths and reading. Moreover, this finding may have more to do with the social background of the sample than the quality of the education they receive.

The paper goes on to argue that independent school pupils also benefit from the development of ‘soft skills’ that ‘can count as much as formal educational attainment’.

The negative impact of the independent sector on social mobility is described in familiar terms, with reference to the proportion of students from each sector who progress to Oxbridge and the professions. This in turn facilitates networking that benefits candidates from the same independent school backgrounds.

As a consequence, the country’s international competitiveness suffers.

It is quite conceivable that a national Open Access scheme might help to bridge the divide between the independent and state sectors, to the extent that it redistributes relatively less able learners from the independent sector to the state sector, as well as vice versa, but there is no evidence to suggest that would happen.

There is no analysis whatsoever, in the 2012 paper, of the impact of this scheme upon the relatively less able independent school pupils who are displaced. The impact on them – at least in the short term – is likely to be negative. (Indeed the earlier papers concede this point –see below.)

The Belvedere School courtesy of Sue Adair

Further arguments are advanced in favour of this approach

The paper dismisses efforts to improve the quality of state schools because:

‘To achieve “world class” schools with a system divided on social grounds is unimaginable’.

The Government ‘has no viable strategy’ on independent schools. Efforts to ‘bridge the gap in achievement’ via academies and free schools, by raising the status and quality of teachers and expanding school choice, will not achieve ‘the dramatic leap necessary’.

In a telling paragraph, the paper points out that public expenditure constraints are an obstacle to levelling the playing field through improvements on the state side of the fence while: ‘fees at independent schools have risen to pay for ever-improving’ provision on the independent side.

This manages to beg two questions at once: if state-funding is so constrained, how can the necessary subsidy of independent school fees be affordable; and, if independent fees are rising and demand is relatively inelastic, why cannot fees  be used to subsidise the proposed Open Access scheme?

It is argued that such a scheme would complement the academies and free schools policy because ‘both models involve independent schools being funded by the state’ (even though this only applies to a tiny handful of convertor schools).

Whereas academies and free schools often require ‘large initial capital investment by the state’ (though this doesn’t apply in the case of schools transferring in from the independent sector) this is not the case with Open Access.

The paper prays in aid the independent sector’s relatively greater resources and the academic qualifications of its teachers (whether they attended Oxbridge and whether they possessed doctorates – though the correlation between this and their effectiveness as teachers is another moot point).

It notes that the current level of bursary awards in the independent sector will not address the problem, since the Trust estimates that no more than 4% of fee income is spent on bursaries while just 3% is allocated to scholarships.

The former are said to benefit predominantly ‘independent school parents who fall on hard times’ and the children of teachers. The latter are not means-tested when they are for less than 50% of a school’s fees, and typically go to those who can afford full fees.

While some schools break this mould, others cannot afford to do so (ie they do not generate enough income from fees and other sources to support learners from disadvantaged backgrounds).

Arguably at least, relying more on cross-subsidisation between wealthy and less wealthy parents via the fees regime would be substantially more progressive than asking the taxpayer to part-fund such places in independent schools. This ought to be workable in sufficiently wealthy schools with high and inelastic demand for their places, but no such argument is advanced or considered.

We are told that:

‘Over 80 schools have now shown in principle support for going Open Access, with state support. The list includes many of the highest-performing day schools in the country.’

But this list is not supplied and we are not told what ‘in principle’ support means in terms. What exactly is it that these schools support? What expectation would they have of agreeing the details of a scheme were one to be introduced?

Alternatives and objections

The only alternatives that the paper actively considers are:

  • Contextually influenced admissions to competitive universities – it rightly argues that this may be part of the solution but that school factors must also be addressed;
  • Attempts to remove the charitable status of independent schools that do not demonstrate sufficient ‘public benefit’, dismissed because this will not bring about fundamental system-wide change (presumably because of the resistance of the independent sector, which would bear all of the cost);
  • Bursary-based solutions paid for by parents, schools and philanthropic sources. These are also dismissed as marginal, while also suffering from the same disadvantages as the Assisted Places Scheme. But that conclusion depends critically on the reach of any new scheme and its design. In principle at least, a workable bursary scheme is just as likely to succeed as a workable open access scheme.
  • Academy sponsorship and independent-state partnership. These are perceived as creating stronger relationships between the two sectors but ‘none…actually overcome the divide’, so enabling students to benefit directly from independent schools’ teaching, facilities and ethos.
  • Vouchers. The treatment of this option is brief and weak, assuming one specific programme design when it would be quite possible to develop a scheme that avoided the disadvantages it cites. As we have seen in a previous post, the pros and cons of voucher schemes depend entirely on their design.

When it comes to handling objections, the Paper offers an extended Q and A.

  • It does not deny that such a Scheme would be divisive and elitist, but argues that it will be relatively less divisive than the status quo, while also helping to open up the elite by introducing meritocracy in place of heredity.
  • It would not increase selection because independent schools are already selective – it would simply mean that different candidates were selected. But this ignores the fact that there will be increased selection, at the level of the individual student, within the population currently served by the state sector, to the tune of two-thirds of the total of 62,000 student beneficiaries – say 40,000 in all
  • It denies that the Scheme is an attack on the independent sector, because involvement in the scheme would be voluntary and schools could ‘back out after joining’. There is no recognition of the problems such a decision would create in terms of transition. Presumably, all children whose fees were being paid would need to have their position protected until they were old enough to leave the school they attended, or else have to transfer back into the state system.
  • It says the Scheme cannot be construed as an attack on parents’ freedom of choice within the independent sector, because nothing would prevent the establishment of new independent schools (to accommodate the displaced students) if there is demand for them. But this rather ignores the fact that such parents have typically chosen a specific institution: they may not be satisfied by an alternative independent school.
  • In response to the suggestion that the country’s educational problems do not relate to higher level performance, it responds that there are problems at all levels. There is no argument with that point from my perspective.
  • It denies that the Scheme is recreating the grammar school system: ‘There is no comparison between a generalised selective system – where 25% went to grammar schools – and what we have in mind, where less than one per cent of the most able will go to open access schools’. (Earlier on the paper acknowledges similarities with the old direct grant system, while noting that there was no means test and those who paid full fees did not need to meet the same academic standard.) We have noted above the fact that this scheme will not benefit the most able 1% nationally in terms of ability because of the uneven distribution of the schools concerned. Therefore, in the particular locality which they serve, the effect may be very similar to opening a new grammar school.
  • Similarly, it denies that such a Scheme would ‘cream off’ talent from local state schools, arguing that the numbers are too small to be significant, but we have just given the lie to this. It adds: ‘it is for the very brightest pupils who often get lost in the comprehensive system’. The suggestion that comprehensive schools cannot serve the needs of such pupils is not raised elsewhere in the paper – and no evidence is offered to support such a claim.
  • It counters the view that it is inequitable to spend scarce funding on these pupils rather than on improving the state system in general by asserting that the overall cost is small compared with the total education budget, while part of the cost will be shouldered by parents rather than the state. The equity argument is not directly addressed.
  • It addresses the contention that there would be no impact on the divide between the independent and state sectors because parents of displaced independent students would send them to other independent schools rather than to fill the places vacated in state schools. Here it acknowledges that these parents would be free ‘to spend large sums on sending their children to less academic independent schools’ – in effect conceding the point above about the restriction on their freedom of choice.
  • The suggestion that the Government should look to other potential solutions is instantly dismissed on the grounds that there are no practical alternatives!
  • Finally the argument that the independent sector should fund such a scheme is dismissed with some vehemence:

‘There is no prospect whatever of private or philanthropic interests financing a significant number of schools. There are simply not enough donors ready for the long-term commitment involved, especially at the moment. To make an independent school truly needs blind on a sustainable basis would require an endowment of between £100 million and £300 million depending on the size, fee level and catchment area’.

But this is nonsense. If the scheme involves 100 schools and the cost is as little as £180m a year in steady-state, then that is equivalent to £1.8m per school per year. One would not necessarily need a huge endowment to meet such a cost.

Moreover, one could expect a substantial proportion of that funding to be met through a levy on those paying full fees – after all, those parents’ children will also benefit from the more meritocratic ethos of the school – leaving a much smaller proportion to be generated from other sources of income and from philanthropic sources.

Similarities and Differences between the 2012 Paper and the 2001 version

It is instructive to review how, if at all, the Sutton Trust’s position on Open Access has changed over the years.

Dating from November 2001, ‘Educational Apartheid: A Practical Way Forward’ is now over a decade old. The structure of that paper is almost identical to this one and the arguments very similar, except that they are very slightly tailored to fit the government policy and educational circumstances of the time.

Many of the paragraphs from the older text have been borrowed wholesale for this edition.

A preface very kindly offers to make available supporting material on request – an offer that is unfortunately absent from the 2012 version.

The substance of the scheme outlined is also almost identical. Indeed the wording of the outline on pages 16-17 of the current paper is largely unchanged, with the exception of the points below.

The 2001 text is different in that:

  • It says that many independent schools have shown interest, without quantifying that interest or framing it in terms of ‘support in principle’;
  • Whereas the entire burden, net of parental fees, would now fall on the Government, the 2001 version says:

‘The shortfall in fee income could be made up by the school’s own funds (where these exist), and private patrons (where these are forthcoming) but the main onus would be on the Government.’

(Later on the text adds that ‘these contributions are only likely to form a small proportion of the total cost’).

  • The cost of opening up 62,000 places at 100 schools is somewhat smaller – £30 million, rising to £200m in steady state.
  • There is no assumption that one-third of displaced independent pupils would transfer to the state system:

‘Initially our guess would be that there would not be many, and that most such children would in practice be accommodated elsewhere in the independent system’.

Nevertheless, this assumption is built into a subsequent calculation, alongside a potential reduction consequent on the removal of capital costs from the equation, to give a cost of £110m (or £140m if capital costs are not discounted).

The difference between this and the current estimate of £180m is presumably indicative of inflation over the last decade, but is also a reminder that the 2012 figures would themselves need to be indexed to take account of substantive inflation in future years;

  • A phased approach is proposed, because it may be felt that the whole sum ‘is too large to commit at once’. This would involve just 12 schools adopting open access in the first instance, at an estimated cost of £3m a year in the first year, rising to £25m over 7 years, when all year groups in those schools would be covered.

‘A further advantage of a piecemeal approach would be that…involvement would be voluntary, and it might take time for the schools concerned to commit themselves to joining the scheme. It was always assumed that open access would be a cumulative process’

  • Some of the alternative solutions that are briefly considered and then set aside are different, for example that of abolishing selection, or charging VAT on school fees (said to be contrary to European law), or adopting an alternative approach to means-testing then being advanced by the Independent Schools Council.
  • The investment in Open Access is presented as an alternative to what the state already invests in support for gifted and talented pupils. It is argued that the principle that more may be spent on able pupils has already been conceded in the state system.
  • There is a calculation to the effect that there would be 4,800 displaced independent school pupils in each year group under a 100-school scheme. The paper continues:

‘Such people would no doubt feel disgruntled, but would be unlikely to inspire widespread sympathy outside their own milieu, or in the press’.

Earlier in the text there is reference to a mysterious and unexplained ‘uncertainty principle’ that would operate to entice these displaced independent school pupils into the state sector.

A brief comparison with the 2004 paper

Moving forward to the June 2004 publication: ‘Open Access: A Practical Way Forward – New Developments’ what, if anything, has changed? Is this closer to the 2012 version in any respects?

Once again, the wording is almost identical in many places – it is clear that the current paper is a marginal adjustment of these two preceding documents rather than anything substantively new.

The treatment of possible alternatives gives somewhat more attention to vouchers, given that these ‘now appear to be Conservative party policy’. One can see in this the genesis of the cut-off version in the 2012 edition.

The treatment is hardly balanced:

‘as perhaps a million more parents fled the state system, its prestige would plummet further. Certainly flat-rate vouchers would increase choice – for those who could find the £3,000 or so to top up the voucher.’

Obviously this relates to the terms of a specific scheme rather than to the wider point that (a different approach to) vouchers might offer an alternative solution to the problem.

The 2004 version of the policy proposition seems to follow its 2001 predecessor in almost all respects. A first tranche of 12 schools is again mentioned, but in slightly different terms:

‘Naturally we would argue that there is a measure of urgency…Rather than shelve action indefinitely, it would be possible to proceed in stages’

The full scheme would still comprise 100 schools.

There is still reference to a minority contribution drawn from schools and philanthropic sources. The cost is still £30m rising to £200m in steady state, and the same calculations are offered to estimate the questionable ‘offsetting savings’. However, the initial cost of the interim stage has risen to £3.5m, though this still increases to £25m eventually.

The text includes a list of supporters: Graham Able, Master of Dulwich College;  Roger Dancey, Chief Master of King Edward’s Birmingham; Tony Evans, head Master of King’s College Wimbledon; David Levin, Headmaster of the City of London School; Mrs Gill Richards, Headmistress of The Belvedere School; Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of Manchester Grammar School.

One can clearly see the extensive overlap between this and the list supplied in the press notice accompanying the 2012 version.

An overall judgement of the scheme

The first and obvious point is that the Sutton Trust has been pushing the same scheme to successive governments for well over a decade.

Some might praise them for maintaining an unchanged position in the face of continued lack of interest from successive governments, though unkinder critics (this one included) might suggest that they are persisting in flogging a decidedly dead horse.

It would have been more honest on this occasion to explain that the scheme being advanced is substantively the same as that presented in 2001 and 2004, or at least to have set out in which small ways the proposal and its justification have changed over time.

One might have expected that the Trust would have taken the opportunity presented by the significantly different policy environment – not to mention the eight years that have elapsed – to strip their proposal back to first principles, to explore how it might be improved and refined to fit the current context.

The key change since 2004 has been the huge pressure on public expenditure. It is even less likely that the Government will dedicate sums of this size now than it was eight years ago. It should have behoved the Trust to think through a financial solution that placed a smaller burden on the taxpayer.

That could have been a similar scheme, but based on a much larger contribution from other sources, including the schools themselves, or it might have been a materially different approach.

But such an alternative would also need to overcome some of the critical points outlined above:

  • The location and geographical spread of the participating schools
  • The impact on pupils displaced from the participating independent schools
  • The impact on the state schools that would otherwise have admitted the pupils exported into the independent sector
  • The coverage of administrative and monitoring costs as well as the increasing cost of fees

Above all it would need to avoid the necessity of the taxpayer guaranteeing in perpetuity 50% of the fee income of participating independent schools. That is unfair, inequitable and entirely unrealistic for any government to contemplate.

An alternative vision of gifted education

What the Trust persistently fails to consider is a solution that supports the same cadre of gifted learners, but that leaves them in situ, within their existing state schools. This was the fundamental principle upon which the National Gifted Education Programme was built.

There is no inherent reason why these learners need to attend independent schools to access the advantages they offer. It is quite possible to secure high attainment, soft skills and a positive ethos within the state sector, as several outstanding schools have demonstrated.

It would be quite possible to achieve similar outcomes by investing something like half the proposed sum of £180m in holistic, personalised support for gifted learners, drawing on sources of support across the educational spectrum, not just in the independent schools. Or one could support at least twice the number of pupils for the same sum.

It is curious that the Sutton Trust has always seemed blind to the advantages inherent in a national gifted education programme of this nature. Its current involvement in the field is confined exclusively to ‘niche’ projects that focus on, for example, private tuition for disadvantaged learners to achieve A*/A grades in maths, or enrichment-based outreach provided by a grammar school to local primary schools

It was hoped that this might change. Last year the Trust commissioned a Report from the University of Buckingham (the same team that evaluated the Belvedere pilot) on gifted and talented education.

But that was originally due for publication in November and, as we move into April, still nothing has appeared. No drafts have been circulated for comment as originally promised and the Trust has made clear that it has no plans to follow up the publication in any way.

Meanwhile, this latest open access paper shows that the Trust is fixated on the wider issue of the obstacle to social mobility inherent in the independent/state divide. That is a totally different matter. It may well need addressing, but there is no case for using gifted learners as the instrument to achieve the desired outcome, especially when the direct benefits to them are questionable.

The independent/state divide requires wholesale reform of the educational structures that embody it and a systematic blurring of the distinction between state and independent sectors. Moving parts of the pupil population between sectors is not the answer.

As for open access, it is a dead duck – and it is profoundly to be hoped that this is the final time we shall see it resuscitated.


April 2012