Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education: An In-Depth Analysis

This second part of an in-depth study of gifted education in Hong Kong concentrates on the development of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE) and its progress to date.

The treatment is somewhat more forensic than I normally offer: there is particular personal interest in an Academy very similar conceptually to England’s own National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, which operated under Government contract from 2002 to 2007.

I especially wanted to explore a statement concerning HKAGE in a recent publication – ‘Room at the Top’ – to which I drew attention in my posts critiquing it:

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

A Brief Reprise

Part One of this post considered the wider development of gifted education in Hong Kong since 1990, describing the emergence of twin school-based and off-site strands.

The latter was originally intended for a tiny 0.1% cohort of exceptionally gifted learners but, by the time the Academy is launched, it has morphed into support for ‘those who consistently perform in the top 2% of their age cohort’.

We have observed that, during the genesis of the Academy, the Hong Kong Government laid down some explicit targets for its early development. It would:

  • provide services to 10,000-12,000 students from 2007-2010 (about 3,000 students per year);
  • serve about 600 teachers and 5,000 parents per year;
  • develop close partnerships with local and overseas universities to offer [student] programmes and provide a network of mentors for Hong Kong’s gifted students; and
  • initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted and effective pedagogy; and offer recommendations on government policy.

Before we examine the emergence of HKAGE services and the Academy’s progress towards these targets, it would help to rectify an omission from Part One by sketching out some broad demographical context.

Hong Kong Demographics

This map

conveys an important reminder that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is a much larger entity than Hong Kong City. It incorporates Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and some 200 smaller islands.

The total land mass of 426 square miles is divided into 18 districts which have a combined population of 7 million people. In 2009, the school-age population included 345,000 primary school learners and 481,000 secondary school learners giving a total school-age population of approximately 830,000.

Of these about 600,000 are within scope of the Academy’s current 10-18 age range. If the Academy were to apply rigidly a 2% cohort assumption, then the total size of its target group would be 12,000 learners. But the fact that learners are admitted on the basis of high performance in different domains will serve to increase the size of the target group significantly.

I can find no data to support a reliable estimate of the potentially eligible population – if the Academy has a figure, it does not seem to be in the public domain – but one might reasonably assume it to be something between 20,000 and 30,000 aged 10-18.

This assumes that the proportion of learners moving out of eligibility each year, having left secondary education, is broadly the same as the proportion arriving within scope at the other end of the age range.

These learners may potentially be drawn from Hong Kong’s 533 secondary schools, and also from those primary schools with learners in the two senior year groups from which the Academy draws. In reality though, almost all students seem currently to come from the secondary sector.

The Role of HKAGE

The Academy’s website gives the purpose of HKAGE as being to:

provide more structured, articulated and challenging off-site programmes for students with exceptional talent, and to promote the concepts and practices of gifted education.’

This formulation perpetuates the idea in earlier papers that HKAGE has a double role – to improve the education of a specific target group of students and to improve gifted education as a whole.

But, unsurprisingly, there is no further reference to providing policy advice to the Government, since that is properly the role of the Gifted Education Service (GES) within the EMB. At the very least, the EMB would want to ensure that any recommendations from HKAGE are filtered through them.

‘Promoting concepts and practices’ implies a much wider outward-facing role as champion of gifted education with the full range of external stakeholders.

Such a role would fit much more comfortably within the partnership between the Academy and the GES. But is is noticeable that there are no published targets for this element of the Academy’s task.

The website reproduces the previous target for the number of students served, but shunts it forward by a year, stating that HKAGE will ‘cater for 10,000 students during the period of 2008-2011’.

Parental education workshops are expected to serve about 5,000 parents annually (following the earlier figure).

There will be a range of training programmes – long and short courses, seminars and talks – but otherwise no specificity about targets. The Academy lowers expectations by noting that it will start ‘from a base of only a few hundred teachers in the first years’ but is highly ambitious for the longer term: ‘it is intended that ALL teachers in Hong Kong will have the opportunity to develop their skills in GE [gifted education]’.

There is a similarly aspirational reference to the research dimension which repeats the wording of earlier documents.

The risk of perceived overlap with GES is directly addressed, at least with regard to externally-facing services:

All of these developments will enable EDB to concentrate its efforts on collaborating with schools to promote effective learning and teaching practices in the classroom (Level 1) and provide support to pull-out programmes inside schools (Level 2). EDB will continue to offer relevant professional development programmes for in-service teachers and may provide some of these programmes in collaboration with the Academy. This will ensure a ‘seamless’ development of gifted students across learning contexts inside and outside schools’.

The HKAGE vision statement emphasises a holistic and strategic entity, but foregrounds the target group of ‘exceptionally gifted’ learners rather than any wider role.

‘to become a world-class institution of its kind with an effective framework for strategic planning and delivery of appropriate programmes to encourage and nurture exceptionally gifted students and to provide support to their teachers and parents as well as other researchers and related organizations within the Hong Kong SAR’.

But, conversely, its mission statement reverts again to the broader concept:

‘To secure appropriate learning and development opportunities for gifted students, initially aged 10 to 18 years, to enable them to realize their potential in a wide range of learning domains including leadership, creativity and inter-personal skills, and to cater for their social and emotional needs as well as their sense of commitment to the local community;

To mobilize and steer the interest and effort of parents, teachers, academics and business and community leaders with a view to creating a conducive and enriching learning environment for all gifted students;

To facilitate the professional development of teachers in the identification and support of gifted students within the school context;

To develop, through partnership with like-minded organizations, both locally and in other countries, a knowledge hub for furthering research on gifted education and the exchange of ideas and best practice.’

There is no hint here of an inward-facing policy advice function, but the outward-facing role across gifted education as a whole is writ large.

The research and advisory function is translated into the creation of a partnership-based ‘knowledge hub’ with national and international reach, calling to mind a sentence in the 2006 Legislative Council paper:

While the Academy will cater primarily for the needs of local gifted students, it has the potential to be developed into a knowledge hub to serve gifted students in the Mainland and the Asia-Pacific region as well’.

This concept borrows from the idea of Hong Kong itself as a ‘regional education hub’, an idea first promulgated in 2004 and subsequently developed into a policy to attract overseas students into its higher education institutions. It is a manifestation of Hong Kong’s wider positioning as a knowledge economy.

So much for these elements of HKAGE’s (regrettably unpublished) strategic plan. We turn next to the services offered by the Academy.

But, to set in proper context the analysis of student services, it is first necessary to review how eligible learners are identified.

Courtesy of Let Ideas Compete

How does HKAGE recruit students?

The Academy’s second press release in October 2008 shows it open for business. A school nomination process is being piloted, with a 4-week window for nominations to be submitted.

Each school is invited to nominate 8 gifted learners who demonstrate exceptional potential and/or performance in one of four domains – leadership, maths, science or humanities – with some leeway to nominate additional outstanding junior students if the quota is too restrictive.

So schools nominate potentially suitable students from amongst those they teach at Levels 1 and 2, though now there is some provision for students to be identified through ‘alternative pathways’ involving school social social workers and educational psychologists.

There is also now a third ‘nurturing the gifted’ entry route which allows HKAGE to nominate directly students who excel in local or international competitions.

The Academy uses screening interviews and ‘domain tests’ to decide which nominated students should be permitted to access its services. Students are selected for particular domain-specific programmes rather than into the Academy as a whole.

The process has changed slightly over time. The nominations window has been extended to six weeks and there is now an online platform supporting this element of the process. However, the entire identification procedure still takes some six months from start to finish.

The 2011-12 guidance invites participating schools to nominate no more than 12 students, with 3-4 in each domain. Nominations go through an initial screening process which examines evidence of achievement and activity and an online non-verbal reasoning test is administered. Shortlisted nominees then attend ‘programme-related selection activities’ (tests, except in the case of leadership where students are interviewed).

What this means in practice is that HKAGE is offering a conflation of categories D and E in the Hong Kong framework for gifted education – domain-specific pull-out programmes for a 2% population but drawn from a large number of different schools.

This presentation by HKAGE’s Director suggests the Academy would prefer an alternative identification process whereby an initial ‘talent pool’ is identified through a Hong Kong-wide assessment, from which Academy participants are subsequently identified through testing and nominations.

It is hard to know why this pool does not already exist, at least in the form of an aggregation of schools’ own identification processes. Certainly, documents such as the Senior Secondary Curriculum Guide insist that:

‘All schools need to develop a mechanism for identifying gifted students that suit their own school context and school-wide approach.’

One can only hypothesise that there is a significant gap between Government exhortation and reality – that, despite several years of support for school-based gifted education, too few schools can currently identify, with any reliability, a cadre of learners that are within scope of Level 1 Category B (10%) and Level 2 Categories C/D (2-4%) provision respectively during any given year.

How many gifted learners are nominated and join HKAGE programmes?

A succession of press releases give figures for the annual identification rounds to date, from which it is possible to build up a composite picture of the growth in numbers of learners involved:

2009 2010 2011
nominations 1080 1800 2007
schools nominating 187 227 249
acceptances 700 1351 1200

We can see that, while numbers of nominees and schools nominating have significantly increased, progress may be slowing. Moreover, the larger number of nominations in 2011 resulted in fewer acceptances, which perhaps suggests that HKAGE is trying to expand into schools which are relatively less secure in their gifted identification practice.

By 2011, the Academy is engaging only some 47% of Hong Kong secondary schools which, if the previous inference is correct, would suggest that over half of Hong Kong schools are relatively untouched by the school-based gifted education movement.

The quota system deployed by the Academy suggests that it is pursuing a deliberate policy of broadening the range of schools supplying participating learners. It presumably prevents some schools from dominating the Academy but, by the same token, it will also depress the total numbers.

In 2010-11, 31% of participants were nominated for the maths domain, 26% for sciences, 23% for humanities and 20% for leadership.

Successful students do not need to be renominated, remaining with the Academy throughout their time in secondary education. So, adding together the numbers for each year above suggests that the maximum number of participants (assuming none have yet left secondary education) is of the order of 3,250.

There is a complicating factor in that the 2009 figures above are not fully consistent with those provided in an answer to a Legislative Council question dating from January 2010. This reveals that:

  • in 2008/09 HKAGE took over from EDB in phases the Support Measures for the Exceptionally Gifted Students Scheme, providing services to 2,370 students by this means;
  • an additional 1,357 new students were admitted to HKAGE programmes during 2008/09.
  • In 2009/10, as of December 2009, HKAGE has admitted 1,385 new students.
  • The target number of students to be served for 2009/10 as a whole is expected to reach 3,500.

I suspect that the problem arises from a conflation of admissions to the Academy and students taking part in Academy programmes. The second figure, depending on how it is defined, will include students admitted in previous years but also, potentially, students not admitted at all. It may even be the case that students are counted more than once if they undertake two or more elements of provision.

It is the second figure – those taking part – which has been established as an indicator of HKAGE’s performance. This has the advantage of measuring activity, but the number admitted to the Academy would be a very useful complementary indicator.

So is the Academy meeting its published target of 10,000 students participating in programmes over 2008-11? This presentation by the Director reports that:

  • in 2008-09 the Academy provided 31 learning programmes for 3,000 students;
  • in 2009-10 43 programmes for 3,500 students and;
  • in 2010-11 70 programmes (though the number of participants is not specified)

so the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’. But this perhaps masks the fact that, if we look at admissions to the Academy as a percentage of potentially eligible learners, it cannot be much above 10% currently.

Courtesy of StudioH (Chris)

What Services does HKAGE offer to students?

The Academy currently divides its student services into six ‘domains’: humanities, leadership, maths, science, multi-disciplinary and personal growth/social development.

It had intended to diversify from 2010 by adding: Chinese language and literature, English language and literature, the arts, technology, mentoring and applied learning, but – with the exception of mentoring – this is not yet reflected on the website.

It offers a mixture of provision, mostly brokered from third party providers, including:

  • programmes (sequences of activities typically occurring weekly for 3-4 weeks);
  • talks
  • competitions
  • mentoring and
  • ‘other activities’ (such as expeditions and summer schools)

Most provision is free of charge both to students’ families and their schools, with the exception of a few credit-bearing programmes. There is also 100% fee remission for disadvantaged students meeting the eligibility criteria.

It is unclear what proportion of this ‘student offer’ consists of activities that would have happened anyway and what proportion are directly commissioned by the Academy, with the cost subsidised from HKAGE’s budget.

Provision in the former category has the merit of being free, but the Academy’s role is essentially confined to supplying the participants by advertising the opportunities to its membership.

Provision in the latter category eats up valuable budget but the Academy can influence the content and pedagogy to ensure that it meets the needs of its members.

It is clear that elements of acceleration, extension and enrichment are combined within this offer.

Activities typically seem to be advertised a term in advance. At the time of writing, the site advertises 11 programmes, all free to participants, as well as its 2011/12 mentoring scheme which matches 2-3 mentees with a single mentor over 4-6 months.

On top of its categorisation of provision, the Academy also plans to restructure its offer into three levels: introductory (enrichment activities), intermediate (accelerated or enhanced domain-specific learning opportunities for gifted students) and advanced (accelerated or tailored domain-specific learning opportunities for highly-gifted students).

So this is partly to support progression but also recognises of the need for improved differentiation to support the relatively wide ability range within the target group.

The Academy has undertaken ‘needs analysis’ surveys which suggest that students want a more developed ‘gifted education community’ and a wider range of provision. The community development aspect seems to depend significantly on an e-learning platform which was reportedly under development in 2010.

Other future plans include harnessing alumni, developing a student record and an award system and dedicated provision for ‘profoundly gifted students’ including an indvidualised education plan (IEP) and arrangements for dual enrolment and advanced placement.

This 2009 press release describes a pilot primary course undertaken in partnership with the Hong Kong Association for Science and Math Education. The outcomes are briefly recorded here. It seems that there has been no further progress towards primary provision since the conclusion of this pilot.

How much student provision is HKAGE brokering?

This is far from clear. A December 2008 press release reports that HKAGE has increased the number of student programmes by 15% compared with the previous year. The Finance Committee paper implied there would be 50 of these in 2007/08, 25 offered by the Academy and 25 by EDB, so this would suggest the total for 2008/09 is 57.5!

But the answer to the 2009 Legislative Council question gives the contradictory information that:

  • In 2008/09, HKAGE conducted 41 programmes for students including 4 seminars, 4 workshops, 31 courses, 1 learning camp and 1 exchange programme and
  • As of December 2009, HKAGE conducted 13 programmes: 3 seminars, 3 workshops and 7 courses. In 2009/10 [as a whole] HKAGE ‘plans to organise 75 programmes including 16 seminars, 14 workshops, 43 courses, 1 exchange programme and 1 mentorship programme, and will set up online courses’.

And we have the Director’s presentation quoted above suggesting 31 programmes in 2008/09, 43 in 2009/10 and a planned 70 in 2010/11. The Director’s figures are consistent with the subset of courses in the Legislative Council answer, but it is clear from the table in his presentation that what he is describing is a much wider range of provision:

2009-10 2010-11
Seminars 5 13
Workshops 10 14
Courses [ ] 41
Camps 2 0
Exchange programmes 1 1
Mentorship 0 1
TOTALS 43 70

One possible explanation is that the figures above are actually for 2008/09 and 2009/10 respectively; another is that one set of figures relates to academic year and another to financial years.

One thing is certain: there seems to be no standardised process for reporting the quantity of provision made available. The only reliable conclusion one can draw is that the overall quantum of brokered provision is increasing.

What Services does HKAGE offer to Teachers and Schools?

Professional development is clearly the Academy’s predominant focus within the service it offers to schools. It currently divides its provision between:

  • structured courses, at one of four levels – introductory (3-6 hours’ duration), foundation (36 hours’ duration), intermediate (34 hours’ duration) and advanced (duration not specified)
  • thematic courses – which includes lectures, workshops and seminars – in three fields: curriculum and instruction, affective education and general topics. These are also aligned with the four levels above.

There are at present no structured courses within the list of upcoming events on the website, though several have been offered in the past. Five thematic workshops and a symposium are advertised, all at foundation and intermediate level.

Both the structured and thematic courses are typically free to participants, suggesting that schools are unable or unwilling to meet any part of the cost of such professional development from their own budgets.

The website suggests however that the Academy will charge for school-based consultancy, offered at a rate between HKD 5,000 and 7,000 per day. There is no information about the take-up of this option.

The Teacher Zone of the website includes a substantial library of articles and resources and the Academy also publishes Inspire, a magazine for educators (there have been five editions to date). There is also a dormant blog for teachers which is only in Chinese.

The Academy organises an annual ‘Hotung Lecture’ (given in 2011 by Renzulli and Reiss and in 2010 by Gagne) and operates a Teacher Commendation Award.

This HKAGE presentation gives further details of the Academy’s future plans in respect of professional development.

The Academy has the strategic aim of becoming:

‘the acknowledged lead supplier of quality in-service gifted education development programmes for teachers in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong’.

It is not clear whether the Academy intends to be a direct supplier of such services or, rather, a broker of services supplied by others, so following the model it has adopted for student services.

The potential risk of overlap with GES is addressed later in the presentation, since it implies that HKAGE is in the lead on ‘generic gifted education courses’ while the GES concentrates on ‘advanced subject-specific courses’.

The current lists of programmes provided by the GES for primary schools and secondary schools suggest that this is largely the position but not exclusively so.

The presentation says that schools’ feedback suggests they want more support for basic understanding of gifted education, identification, curriculum and instruction strategies, affective education and learning models. They rate more highly courses provided by overseas speakers.

It adds that work is in hand jointly with the GES to develop a framework of teacher competences. This would allow it to build courses around the achievement of specific competences – and presumably also help to iron out any overlap issues.

Other future priorities include: strengthening online learning, establishing a research project and increasing opportunities for professional exchange.

This more recent (2011) presentation by HKAGE’s Director suggests that work with GES on a competence framework has been expanded into a full-scale joint professional development strategy including a shared ‘stakeholder strategic approach’.

This identifies key roles in every school: the gifted education manager (who oversees whole school planning) and the gifted education co-ordinator (who co-ordinates teaching and learning strategies in the classroom).

A new professional development framework (reproduced below) is also set to be introduced, which links explicitly to these roles, and which clarifies the respective responsibilities of the Academy and the GES.

As far as I can establish, there is no requirement for schools to nominate separate Gifted Education Managers and Co-ordinators.

The Senior Secondary Curriculum Guide says:

‘There is a need to develop and implement a school-based gifted education policy that allows schools to take stock of the available resources and to plan for long term, coherent and holistic provision for the gifted. It is also essential that each school should nominate a member of staff to be the ’driver’ of the policy in the school, to ensure that all queries are answered, and to support all staff through in-house training’.

Any expectation that two roles are staffed is quite likely to run into opposition at a time when Hong Kong’s education system is undergoing substantive and fundamental reform.

Even if the training programme is free to schools, this framework assumes a big commitment in terms of teacher time, for the two roles themselves and for the training associated with them. School budgets are unlikely to have been supplemented to cover the costs.

How much support is being provided to educators and schools?

The original target was to serve 600 teachers a year. This is pitched low compared with the targets related to students and parents, suggesting perhaps that the Academy’s originators saw this as a field which the GES would continue to lead.

The 2009 Legislative Council question we drew on for information about student services confirms that:

  • In 2008/09, HKAGE took over teacher training work from the GES in phases. During the year, they together provided 18 professional development programmes – 2 lectures, 4 seminars, 5 workshops, 1 introductory course, 4 foundation courses, 1 intermediate course and 1 learning circle. Three outreach talks were also provided for schools. Almost 1,100 teachers took part in these activities;
  • In 2009/10, HKAGE plans to organise 28 professional development programmes – 1 mass lecture, 13 thematic seminars/workshops, 6 introductory courses, 3 foundation courses, 3 intermediate/advanced courses and 2 learning circles. As of December 2009, it has provided 9 such training programmes. The target number of teachers to be served is around 1,900.

All of which would suggest that the Academy is significantly exceeding its targets in this area – and has indeed taken a much larger role in professional development than was originally anticipated.

There are arguments for and against this. On the plus side, one can reasonably make a case that the student programme and the teacher programme are mutually reinforcing, especially since the teacher programme pushes schools into a closer relationship with the Academy, so encouraging them to nominate suitable students.

The counter-argument is that this level of involvement in professional development is evidence of mission drift, requiring a renegotiation of the division of labour between the GES and HKAGE. By devoting scarce resources to professional development, the Academy is reducing significantly the capacity it is able to deploy for the development of student services.

HKAGE’s Services for Parents

The Academy says it aims to:

‘enhance parents’ understanding of gifted education; strengthen the parenting skills of parents with gifted children; and provide a platform where parents can interactively learn from each other’.

It has established a Consultation and Assessment Centre offering a free helpline and a range of consultation, counselling and assessment services for which significant charges are levied.

The Parent Education Programme offers seminars (at introductory and intermediate levels), workshops, parent-child parallel groups and a twice-exceptional student project. The current list of upcoming events suggests that workshops are the most prevalent form of provision. They are sometimes free of charge and sometimes cost HKD 200.

The Academy also offers awareness-raising ‘outreach seminars’ and customised programmes attracting a charge. An online forum is available (in Chinese) and seems reasonably active.

It seems as though the Academy has a policy that at least some services to parents must cover their own costs through charges. It is unlikely that the income stream from this source is sufficient to cross-subsidise other elements of the Academy’s operation.

The original target was to serve 5,000 parents a year. The 2009 Legislative Council Answer makes it clear that a phased handover from GES also took place in respect of parent education services in 2008/09.

  • In that year the two organisations together provided 7 training programmes including 4 seminars and 3 workshops attended by 467 families. The number of parents served was 1,241.
  • In 2009/10, HKAGE planned 29 parent programmes including 1 annual conference, 5 seminars, 7 workshops and 16 parent-child programmes. It also expected to form 3 parent learning groups for parents of twice-exceptional learners. By December 2009, it had held 8 of these – 5 seminars and 3 outreach talks. We do not know how many parents these were expected to reach.

A reasonable inference is that, whereas the Academy is well ahead of target with professional support, it may be relatively behind with parental support.

Research and evaluation

There is no separate section of the website dedicated to research and currently no-one on the management team is allocated explicit responsibility for it.

A summary of proposed operational priorities for 2010-13 was attached to the answer to the Legislative Question asked in 2010. It suggests that this element of work might be commenced in 2010 but would mostly be outsourced, presumably to academics in various Hong Kong universities.

The Academy’s involvement in a recent ‘Giftedness in East Asia Symposium’, co-hosted with the Hong Kong Institute of Education and IRATDE, may indicate that it is now ready to expand its activity in this sector, having made relatively little impression to date.

One area the Academy is likely to invest in is small-scale, low-cost action research conducted by teachers in schools.

There is conspicuously no reference on the website to evaluative activity, whether at the programme level or for the Academy as a whole. The former would potentially have formed the in-house dimension of a nascent research programme.

The latter must of course be undertaken by an independent entity at arm’s-length from the Academy. The apparent lack of a rigorous formative and summative evaluation seems to be a lacuna in all plans, from the inception of the Academy onwards.

It is particularly odd that the EMB is not seeking an evidence base with which to justify the level of the Government’s financial investment in the Academy – and HKAGE itself surely has a vested interest in securing evidence to show the positive impact it has on students’ learning outcomes and the educational effectiveness of partner schools.

We have seen how earlier evaluation exercises have avoided any attempt to pin down a measurable impact on student attainment. It is expressly to be hoped that, despite the conceptual obstacles, a future evaluation of HKAGE does not fall into the same trap.

Without an evaluation we cannot of course substantiate the judgement in ‘Room at the Top’ that I drew attention to above.

Value for money is almost as important: it was expected that the original endowment of HKD 200 million would enable the Academy to function for at least 10 years, but that further income would be generated to secure its longer-term future.

The Legislative Council Finance Committee was advised that annual operating costs would be of the order of HKD 19 million. By late 2009, the Legislative Council is informed that:

  • The audited accounts for 2008-09 show income of HKD 3.2 million (interest on the endowment) and expenditure of HKD 9.2 million (the balance of the cost was met by EMB during this transitional period).
  • Between April and November 2009, income from interest was only HKD 0.25 million as a consequence of the economic downturn, but the 2009-10 budget assumes expenditure of HKD 25.1 million, almost a third higher again than the projections made 2-3 years earlier.

More recent budgetary information is apparently not public but, as we have seen, there is scant evidence that HKAGE has yet managed to establish a significant income stream and the global economic situation will continue to depress the rate of interest generated from the dwindling endowment.

Assuming expenditure relative to income has continued at the 2009-10 rate – and remember that the Academy has significantly expanded its range of services in the meantime – Hong Kong will be fortunate indeed if the Academy can survive on its existing endowment for a decade.

There is a Curriculum Development Council Committee on Gifted Education whose role is to ‘plan and co-ordinate gifted education at all levels’. Some call for independent evaluation might emanate from this source, since the Council is showing interest in such territory.

The notes of its two most recent meetings reveal that a Hong Kong-wide baseline survey of school-based gifted education was scheduled between October 2010 and August 2011. It was being undertaken by Joyce Van Tassel Baska and Kimberly Chandler of the College of William and Mary in the USA .

Perhaps a tender for the evaluation of HKAGE will follow shortly!

Next Stages of Development

The Annex to the Legislative Council question mentioned above – showing strategic priorities for HKAGE from 2010-13 – is reproduced in full below

Training Programme Services/research Online support
Student Division To expand programmes of different learning domains To promote diversified student services To develop online learning community
Teacher Division To expand systematic and phase-in training programmes for teachers Research projects and professional exchange enhancing teachers’ expertise in GE To develop online teachers’ learning community
Parent Division To extend diversified parent education Research projects and parent seminars enhancing parents’ level of understanding on GE To develop online parents’ learning community
Research Division Given the accommodation restrictions at present, there is no proposal to increase staffing for in-house research. Instead it is proposed to use outsourcing of research as an alternative delivery model. It is hoped to start this Division in 2010.

In his 2010 presentation the Academy’s Director identified a series of challenges ahead, including:

  • building capacity
  • the absence of statutory requirements for gifted education
  • an over-emphasis on identification especially via IQ tests
  • the limited amount of research undertaken on gifted education in Hong Kong
  • the challenges of trilingualism and biliteracy
  • the need to change the mindsets of teachers and students alike
  • focusing on undeveloped potential and underachievers who are slipping through the net.

Apart perhaps from the linguistic challenges presented by Hong Kong, these are not atypical of many other countries and states.

Lurking behind the list there seems to be a more general concern that the overall quality of school-based gifted education leaves something to be desired, especially in the majority of schools that have no history of involvement with the GES’s various projects.

Many of the initiatives now being undertaken jointly by the Academy and the GES would appear to be aimed at raising the universal standard of gifted education at school-level, so ensuring that all schools are equipped to enter into fruitful partnership with the Academy, not least for the benefit of the 2% cohort of learners it exists to serve.

One practical way in which Hong Kong could bring about the improvements it seeks is through the development and introduction of a universal Quality Standard for whole school gifted education, designed to raise all schools above a defined baseline while challenging those with greater experience to pursue continuous improvement.

Needless to say, such a standard would incorporate clear expectations in respect of the relationship with HKAGE so that, over time, all schools are encouraged to nominate students, encourage them to take part in Academy programmes and undertake the professional development offered.

A quality standard can be designed to carry within it any number of policy expectations from the centre, though its effectiveness will depend crucially on the carrots and sticks put in place to encourage schools to adopt it. A quality standard will potentially support self-evaluation, improvement planning, an award, or accreditation – even an accountability process.

The baseline survey just undertaken could provide enormously valuable evidence to inform the design. 

Final Words

There can be little doubt that HKAGE has made very strong progress from a standing start. Much credit should go to the redoubtable Stephen Tommis, Director of the Academy, and the equally redoubtable P T Chan, Chief Curriculum Development Officer at GES.

Equally, there are significant obstacles that have not yet been overcome and more looming ahead.

I can find no evidence to substantiate the statement in ‘Room at the Top’, particularly the implication therein that HKAGE’s progress is attributable to freedom ‘from government interference’.

Indeed, the division of responsibility between the two entities has forced HKAGE and EMB into the closest possible partnership, and not just to remove any risk of overlap and duplication: EMB must keep closely involved to ensure consistency with wider education policy, while HKAGE needs wider EMB leverage on schools to help it achieve its objectives.

While I can find no evidence that this partnership is or has ever been under particular strain, it is a fact that – no matter how harmonious – it eats up scarce resources on both sides.

The sheer weight of work involved cannot be under-estimated: from managing the day-to-day relationships through to the not inconsiderable task of briefing and servicing the presence on the HKAGE Board of the two most senior EMB officials.

Should an evaluation of HKAGE ever be commissioned, this important dimension should not be overlooked. Value for money is also critical. But the bottom line is – and must remain – whether involvement with the Academy is improving the attainment, motivation and self-esteem of as many as possible of the target population of gifted learners.


October 2011

The Recent Development of Gifted Education in Hong Kong

This is the first part of a two-part examination of gifted education in Hong Kong. It looks at how gifted education policy and delivery has developed since 1990, so bringing about the system in place today.

It provides a context for Part Two, which considers the emerging role of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE) and its performance to date.

A Seminal Report

Most studies trace the recent development of gifted education in Hong Kong to Education Commission Report No 4 concerning The Curriculum and Behavioural Problems in Schools, published in 1990.

This includes ‘academically gifted’ learners amongst a list of those needing special educational provision. The wider definition of this group owes much to the 1972 Marland Report:

‘Gifted children are those who show exceptional achievement or potential in one or more of the following:

  • a high level of measured intelligence;
  • specific academic aptitude in a subject area;
  • creative thinking – high ability to invent novel, elaborate and numerous ideas;
  • superior talent in visual and performing arts such as painting, drama, dance, music etc;
  • natural leadership of peers – high ability to move others to achieve common goals; and
  • psychomotor ability – outstanding performance or ingenuity in athletics, mechanical skills or other areas requiring gross or fine motor coordination’

but the report defines the ‘academically gifted’ as those presenting one or more of the first three characteristics, noting that there is no specific provision for them in Hong Kong’s mainstream schools.

It adopts a 2% cohort assumption, based on an IQ of 130+, to estimate that 20,000 learners fall within this category and deploys now familiar equal opportunities arguments to justify supporting them.

It proposes school-based programmes rather than special schools for gifted learners, recommending that initial screening should be via teacher nomination. Nominated learners should then be individually assessed through ‘intelligence and achievement tests’ undertaken in the course of primary schooling.

This long-standing recommendation clearly influenced the practice of Hong Kong’s Academy (HKAGE) as we shall see.

It argues that schools should enjoy some flexibility to develop appropriate school-based programmes drawing on a mixture of grouping strategies, accelerative models, curricular enrichment and extension and extra-curricular programmes.

This marks the origin of a core strand of school-based gifted education that has also continued to this day, though now existing alongside the Academy.

Given the lack of information about current provision, the Report recommends further research and a four-year pilot to develop and evaluate school-based programmes in primary and secondary schools, these to be conducted by a professional team and resource centre.

courtesy of cblee

Follow-up Work

In the event, two research studies were conducted in 1992 and 1993. The latter, on the distribution of academically gifted children within Hong Kong schools, informed the shape of the pilot programme. The pilot ran from 1994 to 1997. It was initially confined to 19 primary schools but followed pupils into secondary school in the final year of the study.

The pilot explored the use of curriculum enrichment materials with all learners as well as pull-out options exclusively for gifted learners.

In 1996, the Report of the Sub-Committee on Special Education reviewed progress to date, recommending a more universal approach:

  • ‘There should be comprehensive provisions to support gifted students’ involving teachers at all levels and provision should be extended into secondary schools;
  • All teachers should be aware of gifted learners’ needs. Gifted education should be included in initial teacher education and professional development programmes and tertiary institutions should consider offering a postgraduate course’.

The Executive Summary of the pilot evaluation report records a positive influence on participating students, teachers and schools but, strangely, there is no assessment of the impact on learning outcomes because this was deemed not to be a project objective!

It recommends a staged identification procedure, arguing that it should include highly-creative learners, support for learners’ emotional needs and be renamed the ‘School-based Programme for High Ability Students’.

It reinforces the Sub-Committee’s case gifted education to be included in initial teacher training and subsequent professional development, including school-based training for all schools implementing gifted education programmes.

It continues to advocate flexibility at school level. Schools should be free to decide between within-class and pull-out provision. The former can develop:

‘thinking skills as well as introducing creative activities, self-learning strategies and [a] student-centred approach in the existing subjects, so as to lay the foundation for educating gifted children’.

While the latter can:

‘enable a group of students with similar ability to learn and to stimulate each other. Findings on the pilot project showed that teachers preferred to have about 15 students in each group. The students can be chosen from different classes’.

Meanwhile, the Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre (FHCGEC) had been established as a curriculum and professional development centre in 1995. The evaluation recommends that it should continue, extending its remit to the development of new enrichment activities, and it has done so to this day.

A Policy Framework Emerges

A second phase of development began in 2000, with the publication of a significant Education Department policy paper on ‘The Development of Gifted Education in Hong Kong’.

It offered additional justification for gifted education, referencing Hong Kong’s performance on international benchmarking studies:

‘The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1997 revealed that the top 10% students in Hong Kong were ranked the lowest amongst the academically brilliant students in other Asian countries’.

The Policy Paper sets out a series of principles derived from the pilot project:

  • Gifted education should be seen as part of quality education; gifted students’ needs should be met in their own school;
  • Hong Kong should adopt a broad definition based on multiple intelligences; nurturing multiple intelligences should be the mission of all schools;
  • Special provision is necessary for exceptionally gifted students whose learning needs cannot be met in school and for gifted students with emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties;
  • Teachers should identify and select students for extension and enrichment activities; such activities are one way of meeting individual learning differences at the upper end of the ability range. But the label ‘gifted’ should not be used to define those taking part;
  • Stakeholder resources should be drawn together to support schools in stretching gifted students;
  • A ‘more generic approach’ (which is not further defined) is recommended for primary schools.

Four basic conditions need to be satisfied before gifted education based on these principles can be implemented: a strengthening of existing curriculum and school activities; training for teachers and headteachers; the networking of stakeholders; and development of assessment tools for teachers. Progress is also subject to resource constraints.

Future provision in Hong Kong will:

  • embed three core elements – higher order thinking skills, creativity and personal-social competence – in the curriculum for all students ‘as the basis for nurturing talents and giftedness’;
  • provide enrichment and extension activities across all subjects and differentiated teaching strategies inside the classroom, relying on teachers to match programmes with students’ needs;
  • offer additional pull-out programmes so students can receive ‘systematic training as a homogeneous group, in which they are exposed to mutual challenges, cross-discipline exploration, in-depth studies and co-operative work’;
  • provide for those with special needs via psychological assessment, counselling and special arrangements including individualised education plans;
  • network and mobilise stakeholders to provide competitions, scholarships, mentoring and summer schools; and reposition the Fung Hon Chu centre as a ‘multi-functional resource centre’.

An implementation plan is appended that features this significant diagram.

At level 1:

A involves embedding the core elements of higher order thinking skills, creativity and personal-social competence in the curriculum for all students in regular classrooms.

B (applying to 10% of students in each school) involves differentiated teaching through grouping practice, meeting needs through curriculum enrichment and extension across all subjects in regular classrooms.

At level 2:

C (for 2-4% of students in each school) involves generic pull-out programmes training homogeneous student groups.

D, also for 2-4% of students in each school involves subject-specific pullout programmes for students with outstanding performance in specific areas.

At level 3:

E (just 0.1% of students – so around 1,000 students in all) involves individualised provision for these exceptionally gifted learners.

The paper’s insistence that students accessing school-based programmes (A-D) will not be labelled gifted has not survived. Nor has the assumption that students accessing E-type provision are ‘a highly selected group of exceptionally gifted students’, as we shall see.

Continuing Support for Level 1 and Level 2 Projects

A Cluster School Gifted Project was launched in 2000, under the aegis of the Quality Education Fund, to pilot this structure in 30 schools up to March 2003. (The QEF was established in 1998 with capital of HKD 5 billion to support community initiatives that promote quality education. By the end of 2010, the balance of the Fund was some HKD 6.69 billion.)

The Chinese language website related to this project contains little information but the final project reportis still available. It describes the objectives as:

  • developing schools’ capacity to meet the needs of their gifted learners, including through mutually supportive ‘regional cluster schools’ which specialise in key areas so creating a Hong Kong-wide network of expertise;
  • providing a curriculum development framework and creating a resource base;
  • developing school-based training packages and provide training for the full range of education professionals engaged in gifted education.

The 30 participating schools formed four primary clusters and two secondary clusters, each comprising one key school and four or five associates. The clusters were supported by a School Consultation Service which developed curriculum and training materials.

There were plans to invite tertiary institutions to tender for the provision of teacher development programmes but no satisfactory bids were received. There were also problems with staff turnover in the Consultation Service and significant implications for participating teachers’ time and workload.

Nevertheless, the project was judged to have met its objectives. Teachers and students reported a positive impact on students’ learning (but again there seems to have been no attempt to measure this properly).

In parallel a series of collaborative research and development ‘Seed’ projects were supported by the Curriculum Development Institute (CDI) of the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) – essentially Hong Kong’s Ministry of Education.

These were supported from 2001-2006 with the aim of developing knowledge and expertise, creating ‘a critical mass of curriculum change agents’, providing further impetus to school-based development and modelling the change process in schools.

The 30 schools in the cluster project were invited to continue as Seed projects and 25 did so in 2002-03. (The 5 remaining schools opted to develop their expertise independently). Details of the projects are available in Chinese.

The impact of these projects is evident from an article published in 2008 by the staff of Queen Maud Secondary School one of two ‘leading schools’ in the cluster project and an active participant in several subsequent ‘Seed’ activities.

But it also notes that school-based education is difficult and unpopular, openly acknowledging the downside:

‘Actually, a lot of problems needed to be addressed. For instance, time constraints faced by the teachers act as one of the major barriers…Secondly, shortage of recognized tools for identifying gifted students makes assessing giftedness of a student difficult…Ultimately, difficulty in assessing students’ performance before and after the program often exists…we also lack adequate tools to make accurate measurement of the performance on participants’ creativity and critical thinking [sic]’

The cumulative experience from these two projects captured in EMB’s extensive online Guidelines on School-Based Development Programmes produced in 2007.

Meanwhile, school-based networks have continued to develop. The reply to a Legislative Council Question asked in 2007 noted that:

‘There are currently over 130 schools in the gifted education networks. These networks consist of 57 schools participating in the Gifted Education Partner School Network organised by the EDB since 2004, and 73 schools participating in the Quality Education Fund Thematic Network (Gifted Education). Moreover, about 290 schools participate in various EDB schemes since 2004 for promoting school-based gifted education programmes, and encourage their teachers to study the professional (practical) training programmes run by EDB. The school-based programmes and activities organised by schools are generally offered free to students as part of the education programme of the school’.

Deatails of provision in these Partner Schools is accessible through the Partner School Web which showcases their gifted education programmes for the benefit of other schools in the network and beyond.

The QEF Thematic Network was developed in 2006-07. In the initial phase, 8 primary schools developed school-based pull-out programmes and shared their experiences. Sixteen further schools joined the project in phase 2 and a further 48 in phase three.

A fourth phase, launched in 2010-11 with 84 schools involved also has its own website which describes its purpose as to:

  • develop a Networking Schools Model in Gifted Education so as to include as many schools in Hong Kong as possible to implement thematic gifted education pull-out programmes and whole-class programmes;
  • ‘immerse the core elements advocated in gifted education in the curriculum for the gifted students in the networking schools so as to cultivate their potential’ [sic];
  • deploy teaching materials and grouping arrangements within an ‘enrichment and acceleration curriculum’ in the thematic pull-out programmes; and
  • support the sharing of experience between teachers and schools in the network and, through collaboration, with schools overseas.

The bulk of this activity has been overseen by the Gifted Education Section (GES) of the EMB, first established as a separate entity in 2003, with an office located in the Fung Hon Chu Centre. In broad terms, the role of the GES is to oversee all aspects of school-based gifted education (though this is not quite as clear-cut in reality). The GES website says that it:

  • promotes school-based gifted education by developing curriculum resources and providing support to schools, including guidelines, web-based curriculum resources and teacher training packages for school-based gifted programmes;
  • manages the Fung Hon Chu Gifted Education Centre;
  • disseminates curriculum resources by organising regular briefings and experience sharing sessions; and organises teacher development events;
  • recruits mentors for experimental enrichment programmes, monitors their implementation and selects and refines suitable materials for use as web-based curriculum resources;
  • compile exemplars for uploading into the curriculum bank of the Curriculum Development Institute;
  • implements pilot projects to promote school-based gifted programmes;
  • liaises with related organisations and bodies; and answers enquiries on gifted education and related issues.

Note that, both through its name and its responsibilities, the GES has set aside the original edict that the ‘gifted’ label should not be applied at Levels 1 and 2 of the HK gifted education framework.

The GES provides updates via this resource bank, this list of about professional development programmes and this ‘What’s New’ page.

The GES has to date commissioned six year-long web-based learning courses on Earth Science, Astronomy, Mathematics, China’s Reform & Opening-up, The Rise of Contemporary China and Palaeontology from various universities and professional bodies . There is a separate website giving access to these courses.

courtesy of stuckincustoms

The Antecedents of the Hong Kong Academy

As early as 2001, a project called Support Measures for Exceptionally Gifted Students was introduced. Its website is no longer functioning, but background information can be found elsewhere. The answer to the previously cited Legislative Council Question explains that this scheme provides:

‘off-site support to exceptionally gifted students in need for [sic] advanced enrichment and extension. The students are selected through annual territory-wide school nomination and accepted as members of the Scheme. Since 2001, 6 000 students have been admitted…over 200 secondary schools nominate their students…..An evaluation… was completed in January 2006 through survey, case studies and interviews. The results demonstrated that the Scheme was able to enhance students’ academic knowledge, self-confidence, learning ability and widened their perspectives.’

Even allowing for movement out of the cohort, we can already see that this group has many times exceeded its original specification as 0.1% of the school population.

A Finance Committee document from 2007-08 updates the position, explaining the relationship with the nascent Academy:

‘In 2006-07, the Support Measures for Exceptionally Gifted Students included 51 enhancement programmes and 36 related activities for gifted students, their teachers and parents, costing about [HKD] 3.8 million in total. The total number of participants (including students, parents and teachers) was about 8 000’.

In 2007-08, 25 enhancement programmes will be conducted by the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) with an estimated expenditure of about HKD 1.9 million, while the newly established Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (the Academy) will gradually take over and further develop around 25 enhancement programmes in the various domains, in addition to offering new programmes for senior primary students and junior secondary students with its own funding. The total estimated number of participants of the programmes by EMB and the Academy would be about 10 000 (increased by 25%) in 2007-08.

The enhancement programmes for gifted students organised under the Scheme include university-based credit-bearing courses, research projects, study camps, Olympiad training, leadership training cum social services etc. Since 2006-07, mentoring programmes have been launched to further stretch the potential of award winners in open competitions. There will be new domains of languages and arts in 2007-08.’ (p. 305)

Since there were approximately 480,000 secondary students in the Hong Kong education system at this time, this ‘level 3’ provision seems to have become associated with a 2% cohort before the Academy was launched.

An Academy is Proposed

The first references to the Academy can be found at least a year earlier, in a description of Policy Initiatives on Education in 2006-07 published by the Legislative Council:

‘The mission of the proposed Academy for Gifted Education (the Academy) is to expand the pool of talents in terms of both numbers and diversity by providing learning opportunities and specialist services. To achieve this, it aims to catalyse and galvanise the efforts of teachers, parents and different sectors of the community to create a supportive, sustainable and enriching learning community for students. The Academy will also network with overseas institutions on gifted education to pool international expertise and to share experience with local practitioners and experts. While the Academy will cater primarily for the needs of local gifted students, it has the potential to be developed into a knowledge hub to serve gifted students in the Mainland and the Asia-Pacific region as well.

The direct services of the Academy will cover the following –

  • for students – the direct service mainly comprises off-site service for the exceptionally gifted students whose needs cannot be met by school-based programmes. Learning opportunities aim for ‘enrichment’ (i.e. knowledge not normally encountered in schools such as film, art, astronomy, marine science) and ‘acceleration’ (such as programmes set at the undergraduate level or beyond);
  • for teachers – it provides an arena for teachers and specialists to exchange experiences, collaborate and enhance the overall capacity in supporting gifted education;
  • for parents – it provides advice on parenting the gifted at home to better cater for their cognitive and emotional needs; and
  • for academics and professionals – building on strengths and local experience, it should aspire to tap into and contribute to the development of gifted education both locally and worldwide as a long-term goal.

While EMB will continue our efforts in gifted education to serve schools and teachers at Levels 1 and 2, we will support the Academy in widening the range of services to the above stakeholders at Level 3.’

The Finance Committee considered the projected costs of this plan in January 2007. It was invited to approve a one-off grant of HKD 100 million (equivalent to £8.3m) to match a donation given by a philanthropist, Sir Joseph Hotung (see below) giving a total start-up budget of HKD 200 million (so £16.6m).

This budget constituted an endowment, allowing the Academy to draw down funds while continuing to earn income from investment of the capital.

The previous annual budget for gifted education of HKD 29 million (£2.4 million) was therefore increased significantly, though with the rider that this funding was predominantly targeted at the relatively small ‘level 3’ cohort, who were now much more generously supported than the much bigger group benefiting from school-based gifted education

In making the case for this investment, the EMB quantifies the service to be provided, so giving us a set of benchmarks against which we can assess the Academy’s progress. It will:

  • provide services to10,000-12,000 students during the period from 2007 to 2010 (about 3,000 students per year);
  • serve about 600 teachers and 5,000 parents per year; and, more qualitatively:
  • partner closely with local and overseas universities in offering programmes and to set up a network of mentors comprising different expertise to support the development of gifted students in Hong Kong; and
  • initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted and effective pedagogy, and offer recommendations on government policy which are conducive to the sustainable growth and advancement of knowledge in gifted education in Hong Kong’.

It states that the Academy will be operated independently of Government ‘for greater operational effectiveness’ (this assertion is not justified and one can imagine the EMB authors not being entirely convinced).

It is not clear where this insistence on independence originated. It may have been imposed as a funding condition by Sir Joseph Hotung or, more probably, there were legal obstacles to the acceptance of such largesse by an arm of Government.

Whatever the source, the Academy:

‘should have a high degree of independence and flexibility in planning and operating its services as well as in managing its human and financial resources. We therefore propose to set up the Academy as a limited company under the Companies Ordinance (Cap. 32). The objectives of the Academy will be clearly set out in the Memorandum and Articles of Association. As a non-profit-making entity, the Academy will not be allowed to distribute dividends’

Since ‘various stakeholders interested in the development of gifted education in Hong Kong should be involved in the management of the Academy’ it should have a Board of eight to ten directors appointed by the Government.

The next section is oddly worded:

‘The Academy is expected to assume the role of a central co-ordinator and lead collaborator to develop and monitor the scope and quality of the services, partly to be conducted by its staff, and partly to be contracted out to potential course providers…This mode of operation without a purpose-built premises for the academy itself is being implemented elsewhere (e.g. in the United Kingdom)’.

A negative interpretation would be that the Ministry is creating an expensive middle-man, in the form of an arm’s-length body that will handle relationships with third parties that were previously handled through the GES.

The notion of an Academy on the original NAGTY model – a community that serves students and to which student members belong – seems not to be central to this thinking.

The Academy will ‘start with a strategic and core team of about 15 staff, to be headed by an Executive Director…supported by a small team of professional officers and other technical and administrative staff.’

Annual operating costs are estimated at about HKD 19 million (staff costs HKD 6.5m, student services HKD 7.0m). The endowment might be supplemented over time through the addition of ‘donations, sponsorships and course fees’ but the initial sum ‘should have provided sufficient financial certainty for not less than ten years for the Academy to develop the best financing model to suit its operation’.

…which is not quite the same as voicing an aspiration that the Academy should become as far as possible self-funding within a 10-year period.

The Hotung Donation, the Board and Director

Sir Joseph Hotung issued a general statement in the form of an EDB press release in October 2006 but it says very little of significance.

Hotung is a Hong Kong based philanthropist and art collector. He was born in Shanghai, attending a Catholic school run by the Marist Brothers, St Louis College in Tsientsin. He then briefly attended university in Hong Kong before moving to the Catholic University of America. He was also subsequently an external law student of the University of London.

He worked initially as a security analyst with the Marine Midland Bank, returning to Hong Kong on the deaths of his father and grandfather. He launched a property business and subsequently became a Director and Board Member for HSBC Holdings plc, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Hong Kong Electric Holdings, Guinness Investment Ltd. and Ho Hung Hing Estates. He was knighted in 1993.

The Academy’s Board of Directors was constituted and met for the first time in November 2007 under the Chairmanship of Mr Irving Koo, another Hong Kong businessman who has served as Chair of the Quality Education Fund (1998-2003) and the Hong Kong Examination and Assessment Authority (to 2009), as well as being a member of the University Grants Committee and the Education Commission.

Other original members were:

  • Professor Shiu-yuen Cheng, Professor of Maths at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
  • Mrs Julia Fung, Trustee of the Fung Hon Chu Trust Fund
  • Mrs Lisa Hotung, representative of Sir Joseph Hotung (and presumably his wife)
  • Mr Frederick Lam, Chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Parents of Gifted Children
  • Mrs Stella Lau, Headmistress of the Diocesan Girls’ School
  • Dr Eric K C Li, a senior partner in an accountancy firm and former member of the Legislative Council
  • Dr Philip Wu, a bank director and former Chairman of the Council of the Open University of Hong Kong.

Messrs Koo, Cheng, Fung, Hotung and Lam had been part of a Preparatory Committee established by January 2007 to assist in the selection of an Executive Director, ‘prepare the ground and…ensure a smooth transition to setting up the governing body’.

Messrs Koo, Cheng, Fung, Hotung, Lam, Lau, Li and Wu continue to serve on the Board, but there are two other very important members:

  • Mrs Cherry Tse Ling Kit-ching, the Permanent Secretary for Education at EMB
  • Dr Catherine Chan Ka-ki, her Deputy Secretary for Education.

These are the two most senior civil servants for education in Hong Kong. This almost unparalleled show of strength – for they appear to be full participants, not alternatives and not observers – must signal the potentially huge significance of HKAGE within Hong Kong’s educational system

But it probably also suggests that the EMB, on behalf of the Hong Kong Government, is absolutely determined to exert some control over what might otherwise be a potentially loose cannon.

The Executive Director, Stephen Tommis, formerly Chief Executive of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the UK, was appointed in February 2008 and continues to provide strong leadership. His experience in working closely with central Government while simultaneously maintaining an independent organisation will have commended him to the Preparatory Committee.

The Academy’s first press release, dated July 2008, confirms the figures in the previous documents referenced above, adding, for clarity:

‘The target student population is those who are exceptionally gifted as defined by those who consistently perform in the top 2% of their age cohort. Initially, the Academy will concentrate its provision on the 10-18 ages with the Support Programmes for the Exceptionally Gifted but hopes to extend the age range in time…

…apart from the frontline Student Division, Parent Division and Teacher Division to cater for these three types of stakeholders, the Academy also has a research division to partner closely with local and overseas universities as well as to initiate and conduct research to provide evidence-based advice on services for the gifted, effective pedagogy and government policy.’

The ‘Level 3’ population has been expanded significantly – it would not make sense to establish an Academy of this size to cater for the 1,000 students deemed exceptionally gifted, so the target group is now expanded to something nearer 20,000 and confined in the first instance to the 10,000 or so aged 10-18.

Hong Kong’s gifted education programme clearly made enormous strides over this period of less than twenty years but, with the advent of the Academy, expectations were raised significantly higher.

In Part Two we will review the rapid development of the Academy to date and consider whether it is yet meeting the targets it has been set.


October 2011

Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part Two)

This is the second part of a two-part post on Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme. Part One is here.

In the first instalment we looked briefly at the history of gifted education in Saudi Arabia and the references to it in the country’s Ninth National Plan before reviewing three online documents relating to Mawhiba and its parent Foundation.

Part Two takes a closer look at how the structure of Mawhiba has developed, particularly the Mawhiba Schools Partnership, and offers a provisional assessment of progress.

Picture courtesy of S Raj

The Five Strands as Seen by McKinsey

We need to return to the original Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation to get a fuller treatment of the five strands of activity they advocated for the Mawhiba Project itself.

Mawhiba Schools Partnerships are not quantified by the number of schools involved, but McKinsey envisages that they will benefit 550 gifted pupils in 2008, 1,700 in 2009, 4,500 in 2010 and 6,600 in 2011.

Provision in these partner schools should include a common programme for all learners up to Grade 3 and, in Grades 4-12, a blend of separate classes for G&T students and mixed ability classes for all students, with admission of students into the gifted cohort following a selection process undertaken in Grades 4 and 7.

The Foundation is advised that schools need incentive systems to manage the performance of their leadership, and that mechanisms should be in place to ensure that disadvantaged students are not excluded.

Action is therefore required to:

  • develop and administer intelligence and creativity tests to select students;
  • design curricula to nurture giftedness and creativity and support schools in their implementation;
  • train teachers to teach gifted classes and principals to lead Mawhiba schools;
  • set standards for partner schools, select the schools and monitor compliance with the standards;
  • develop a funding model for the schools linked to the student and/or the teacher; and
  • establish a parental support unit to secure continued parental engagement in their children’s education.

The enrichment programmes will be introduced gradually over the full 15-year period. There will be:

  • after-school programmes covering Grades 4-12, with admission on the basis of interest but continuation on the basis of performance;
  • summer programmes, also covering grades 4-12, but open to students from partnership schools and other schools, though eligible students must have passed stage 1 of the Mawhiba selection process. These will be the flagship of the enrichment dimension in the first 5 years; and
  • competitions and awards covering grades 1-12 and university that are entirely open access.

The Young Leadership and Scholarship Programme should be open to all students entering their final year of high school, with selection based on prior academic performance, submitted essays and interviews. It should provide summer internship opportunities at top Saudi and international companies, supported by an online job portal and career guidance sessions.

There should also be: programmes to build language and entrepreneurial skills and offer research seminars with experts in various fields; mentoring provided by academics or industrialists, including regular 1:1 and group meetings; and scholarships to study at top international universities, as well as support with the applications process.

The Creative Work Environment initiatives will share best practice on nurturing creativity in the workplace by raising awareness, developing best practice material and providing training and workshops

The communications strategy involves getting stakeholders to endorse the strategy, building awareness and understanding across society and growing Mawhiba’s reputation as a national strategic organisation.

Outcome targets are defined in terms of numbers participating in each strand. Targets for the end of the initial five year plan are given as:

  • 6, 600 gifted learners in school partnerships
  • 5,000 suitably-qualified participants in enrichment programmes
  • 2,000 eligible students in the young leaders and scholarship programme

so 13,600 beneficiaries in all. (This is broadly similar to the 14,000 cited in the Ninth National Development Plan).

Some fairly dubious assumptions are then deployed to claim that, overall, some 28,000 different students will benefit by the end of this first phase, and that the programme will impact on 10 times as many people in all if one counts the gifted students’ fellow pupils and their families. This helps to give the impression that the programme is bigger than it first appears.

To achieve these outcomes it will be necessary for the Foundation to:

  • undertake concept development – co-ordinating activity across domestic and international partners;
  • commission programme delivery through implementation partners, setting performance targets and managing partners against them;
  • secure funding from sponsors and allocate it between projects; and
  • communicate with and secure buy-in from key stakeholder groups and co-ordinate an awareness-raising campaign.

Picture courtesy of Shabbir Siraj

The structure today

One can find online copies of several tenders for aspects of the Mawhiba programme (though not all of them) but they are not particularly informative, containing only the briefest outline of the programme itself.

The most recent, for the Young Leaders’ Programme , was dated 30 April 2011 (though I found it online a week or so before that date). It describes the five strands as follows:

  • ‘Mawhiba School Partnerships – work with top private and public schools to introduce a special curriculum for gifted students from Grades 4-12. Schools entering the partnership will receive support to upgrade their curriculum and physical infrastructure and to better train their teachers to deliver advanced curriculum to gifted and talented pupils. Key activities include curriculum design, teacher and principal standards and training, school selection and accreditation, student assessment, and parental support.
  • Mawhiba enrichment programs – develop summer and after-school programs and support competitions and awards for school-age students. Components of these programs that the selected partner will have to support include developing program content and policies, selection of training and staff, providing technical support and documentation.
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders Program – develop a program for students in their final year of school to bridge the gap between academic study and professional life. Objectives of the program will be to provide students with internship opportunities, mentorship programs, skill-building programs, and scholarships to top international universities.
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative – Develop and promote creativity in the Saudi workplace by raising awareness and offering creativity diagnostic tools, developing and sharing best-practice materials and conducting trainings and workshops with companies.
  • Mawhiba student selection – Develop and administer tests for selecting students for Mawhiba programs. In addition, develop process for selecting the students and support the process through means such as training of staff and expert advisers.’

The first four are pretty much as designed by McKinsey, but the final strand has emerged from under the wing of the Schools Partnerships and grown in significance, reflecting the separate reference to selection tests in the 2009 Brochure.

It is as if everyone has been committed throughout to a five-fold structure for Mawhiba, but no-one could quite agree what should constitute the fifth and final element!

Incidentally, the tender envisages a pilot for the Young Leaders Programme involving just 100 participants, so a long way short of the 2,000 projected by McKinsey for 2012/2013.

Selection Tests, Enrichment and Research

The growing emphasis on selection tests within these overarching descriptions of Mawhiba seems rather at odds with the ‘human capital’ approach described in Room at the Top:

‘KSA believes that it is most likely to develop this critical mass not through selection of a few students and special programmes or schools, but rather through the high performance approach – through the creation of high expectations in school, coupled with systematic nurturing of the advanced cognitive performance characteristics in students. By introducing advanced cognitive performance from an early age they expect to ensure that those with the capacity to excel will do so.’ (pp 48-49)

It seems that Mawhiba places some importance on building schools’ capacity to provide advanced educational opportunities and encouraging all pupils to achieve them. But there are also selection tests to identify a gifted cohort who are eligible for Mawhiba activities, presumably including scholarships to attend Mawhiba schools.

The emergence of this emphasis on student selection can be tracked back to a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation and the National Centre for Measurement and Evaluation. The two parties agreed to work together to develop and standardise a new test battery to identify gifted and creative students.

Earlier this year, reports suggested that this would expand into a ‘national project to identify gifted students’, beginning with pupils in Grades 3 to 9 in 16 regional education administrations, but expanding into a comprehensive national database of all gifted students in the Kingdom.

According to one report this project will use ‘the NAGC standards of identification’ as the basis for developing generic identification tools and procedures and related training for staff who use them. But the references on the Mawhiba site appear to suggest that identification will be confined to science and technology

Meanwhile there are various newspaper reports outlining the continuing expansion of the enrichment programme, especially the summer schools component.

In 2010, there were 27 domestic summer schools in science and technology, all of 2-4 weeks’ duration, provided by 22 different universities, colleges and research centres. They were attended by 1,369 students drawn mostly from Grades 5 and 6 and Grades 9-11.

Sixty were based at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), which offered courses in computer programming, mechanics and maths taught by university lecturers.

A further 83 students attended international summer schools held at venues such as Cambridge, Johns Hopkins (CTY), MIT and Oxford.

McKinsey forecast 5,000 participants by 2012/2013. It is not clear whether other smaller-scale enrichment activities have put Mawhiba within reasonable striking distance of this projection.

The Mawhiba website suggests there has been some progress towards the second specific objective identified in the Ninth National Development Plan. The research and policy unit will include among its responsibilities:

  • Developing and maintaining a database of information about gifted education in the Kingdom, including quantitative data about the performance and progress of gifted students;

  • Developing written policies for all aspects of the programme; and

  • Undertaking evaluation of different initiatives, defining performance indicators where necessary

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Development of School Partnerships

As far as I can establish, the Mawhiba Schools Partnership (MSP) began with 19 schools, increased by 17 in 2010 to 36 schools and is expected to reach 60 schools by June 2013. All Partnership schools are currently located in Riyadh, Jeddah or Dammam.

There were originally 250 scholars spread between the initial 19 schools. The 36 schools currently involved are said to serve 600-700 pupils, depending on the source. These are presumably those Mawhiba Scholars who have successfully passed the selection tests identifying the top 3%. Thiis dimension of the project is therefore undershooting significantly the numerical projections proposed by McKinsey in 2007.

We have extensive information about the process for selecting MSPs because the ‘School Selection Handbook 2009/10’ is available online.

It begins by setting out the objectives underpinning MSPs, which are to:

  • Select the schools capable of joining the Partnership and willing to ‘fulfil the vision’;

  • Support to improve these schools’ effectiveness at developing their students’ creativity and giftedness, so securing high performance;

  • Support the introduction of an ‘advanced supplementary curriculum and assessment framework’ designed to develop advanced learners, future leaders and creative entrepreneurs;

  • Introduce a contemporary pedagogy to develop the skills necessary for high performance and entry to world-class universities;

  • Offer professional development and support provided by international and local experts and through collaboration between member schools;

  • Select gifted and creative students who will receive scholarships to attend a member school; and

  • Ensure that parents are involved as partners in their child’s education.

Three different levels of membership are described: member, partner and advanced partner. All schools join as members but can then apply for accreditation as partners or advanced partners.

Much of the handbook is taken up with a Standard for Selection based on ‘international research into the characteristics of effective schools’ because:

‘providing a world class education system leading to high performance for the most able students requires integrated provision not just a bespoke programme for a minority of students’.

The standard has been informed by the work of Sammons and McGilchrist, two UK researchers, and benchmarked against international standards including ‘Ofsted UK, Investors in People UK, Professional Standards for Teachers in the USA and Australia and the Quality Standards for Gifted and Talented Education DfES, UK‘.

Selection depends on schools meeting eight standards: Student Achievement, Leadership and Management, School Ethos, Teaching and Learning, Classroom Management, Student Personal Development; Parental Involvement and Commitment. Each is assessed on a four-point scale:

1 – excellent

2 – good

3 – developing

4 – limited

Member schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘3 – developing’ on every standard except Commitment, for which they need to be rated ‘2 – good’.

Schools are invited to express interest, then submit a self-evaluation form. An external evaluator visits the school and the leadership team is expected to offer a presentation that demonstrates their commitment. There is also: observation of classroom teaching; discussions with the leadership team, teachers, students and parents; and analysis of students’ work and assessments.

These external evaluations are moderated before successful schools are selected by a ‘Mawhiba Strategy Group’. They must sign a formal Agreement, while unsuccessful schools receive feedback on how to improve. The handbook says the Panel will also take into account the balance between boys’ and girls’ schools, the geographical location and the ‘required number of places for Mawhiba scholars’.

Partner schools need to achieve a minimum of ‘2 – good’ on every standard. They must submit a further application and self-evaluation form for this purpose providing evidence of progression since the school became a member.

The evaluation also draws on other evidence including: orientation of Mawhiba Scholars, implementation of the advanced supplementary curriculum, feedback from consultants and co-ordinators, lead professional weekly reports, parents’ forums and the outcomes of an annual evaluation review. There is a further site visit followed by moderation and final judgement.

Advanced partner schools must already be partner schools, actively engaged in training other schools and achieve ‘4- excellent’ in Leadership and Management, Teaching and Learning and at least two further standards.

Applicants must supply, alongside a further self-evaluation: a case study exemplifying in-school training and development; evidence of professional development through networking; and an outline of how they plan to support and challenge other schools.

The site visit includes a formal interview with the leadership team and analysis of the two Standards that the school has nominated as excellent. There is again moderation before the Strategy Group take a final decision.

Progression through these tiers is slow since, other than in exceptional cases, member schools cannot apply to become partners until the have been in the project for two years – and must wait a further two years to apply for advanced partner status. Moreover, the status achieved must be re-accredited every three years.

Schools are requested to apply annually to become members. The handbook refers to ‘a range of incentives’ to encourage them but does not spell these out, referring readers instead to the Mawhiba website.

To a UK reader this comes across as excessively bureaucratic, heavily structured and top-down, suggesting that the team is not confident of schools’ capacity to self-evaluate. The process requires extensive evidence and, so a heavy investment of time and effort by the school. The demands on assessors’ time will also be significant.

This is not of itself a scalable and sustainable model and one might reasonably expect that ‘advanced partner schools’, once they come on stream, might take on some of the responsibilities currently undertaken by external consultants.

Outstanding Mawhiba Teachers and Leaders

There are separate and parallel accreditation processes for individual teachers and school leaders, known as the Outstanding Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTA) and the Outstanding Leadership Mawhiba Teacher Award (OMTLA).

According to the 2010-11 Handbook for these,staff in MSP schools can benefit from:

  • Professional development including courses accredited towards a Masters Degree by the London University, Institute of Education (The London Centre for Leadership in Learning confirms in its Prospectus that it is engaged in designing and leading these programmes);

  • Specialised courses for science, maths, ICT and English teachers provided by international experts;

  • ongoing in-school support for all staff and parents by Mawhiba City Co-ordinators (MCCs) including training and support for nurturing giftedness and creativity in the context of whole school improvement;

  • training in the effective use of the advanced supplementary curriculum (ASC) ‘authored by World Class Arena (WCA) international curriculum development experts’; and

  • the OMTA and OMTLA, each based on a defined standard.

The OMTA Standard:

‘defines what an individual teacher needs to do in order to achieve the world class standards of education which Mawhiba Schools aspire to achieve’.

It too is based on international research – the work of Hattie and England’s TDA’s Professional Standards (currently under review) are particularly cited. It signifies that:

‘a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher within a Mawhiba school and has consistently fostered high levels of performance in students through use of a range of effective, contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The OMLTA signifies:

‘that a teacher has been recognised as an expert teacher, as outlined above, but has also shown skills and expertise in leading others – within and across schools – to develop their practice in fostering high performance through use of the most effective contemporary teaching and learning approaches’.

The standards appear to be very demanding, as a Blog kept by a newly-appointed assessor reveals:

‘Last year only 3 out of 30 candidates won this award as they have to meet international standards. Thank goodness the final OMTA decisions are made back in the UK as I have to work with the Dammam teachers after the fact.’

Picture courtesy of Johnrawlinson

The Advanced Supplementary Curriculum (ASC)

We also have information about the ASC. A ‘white paper’ dated April 2009 is available online called ‘Designing a Programme for Giftedness and Creativity in Mawhiba Partnership Schools‘.

The preface says this: ‘brings together the best international practice and three decades of experience from leading work in this area in the United Kingdom’.

It suggests five underpinning principles for curriculum development:

  • High quality educational opportunities help to enabling gifted and creative students to demonstrate high performance.

  • While gifted students do not possess ‘unique learning strategies’, they are more creative and draw to a greater extent on a repertoire of intellectual skills. They deploy metacognition, strategy flexibility, strategy planning, hypothesis, preference for complexity, extensive webbing of knowledge about facts and processes.

  • We should aim to create autonomous and empowered learners who demonstrate extensive: subject knowledge and understanding, skills, values, attitudes and attributes.

  • Curriculum is supported through assessment for learning that monitors student progression enabling students to plan next steps with their teachers in the light of their personal strengths and weaknesses.

  • Provision must lead to qualifications that enable students to progress to leading universities.

It indicates that the ASC will be designed to help students develop expertise in maths, science, ICT and English, but also to generate the:

‘learning behaviours that will enable them to develop the high level knowledge, skills and concepts associated with expert performance in these specific subject domains and more generically’.

Students in Grades 4-10 will undertake the supplementary curriculum alongside their normal curriculum; those in Grades 11-12 will follow courses leading to internationally recognised qualifications.

This will be undertaken through a series of curriculum materials, supported by age-related ‘curriculum progression standards’ (Other material online suggests that Mawhiba Scholars need to achieve in line with these standards each year in order to stay on the programme.)

Learning activities will provide challenge through high expectation and enquiry based approaches that develop analytical, critical and creative thinking skills. Assessment will monitor the overall effectiveness of the programme as well as the progress made by students.

The broad approach to curriculum is illustrated by a table which is also published separately as a poster on the World Class Arena website.

The timetable for the publication of the materials is phased, so that those for Grades 4, 7 and 10 are produced first, followed presumably by Grades 5, 8 and 11 in the second year and then Grades 6, 9 and 12 in the third. All the curriculum materials published to date (Grades 4, 7 and 10 only at the time of writing) are available here including the Teachers’ Guides.

Provisional Conclusions

It has not been easy to gather together the information for this post. Given the wide variety of sources (some more reliable than others) and the tendency for key facts to be ‘lost in translation’, I hesitate to offer any meaningful assessment of either the scope of Mawhiba or the progress that has been made.

It is important to remember that we are only in the fourth year of a 15-year plan. It will take considerable further effort to realise the ultimate ambition of:

‘A creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly educated, and well trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

However, the early stages seem to be progressing at a slower pace than envisaged in McKinsey’s five-year plan and the numbers of beneficiaries are also significantly lower.

There is a huge gap to bridge between 700 pupils in 36 Mawhiba School Partnership schools and a national programme that directly benefits 3% of the Saudi school population – around 140,000 pupils spread across some 26,000 schools – and indirectly benefits all of their fellow learners.

The design is hugely ambitious but the practical delivery to date does not yet begin to match it. The 14,000 participant target in the Ninth Development Plan looks a ‘big ask’. The subsequent roll-out process will be critical and very demanding, and it will depend heavily on the urgent development of sufficient homegrown Saudi capacity to support it.

There has clearly been enormous investment in the design of support systems for schools but, even if we assume that all pupils benefit, not just the identified 3%, the current unit cost per pupil must be unsustainable even for a country as rich as Saudi Arabia.

It is surprising that Mawhiba seems to remain entirely separate from the wider Tatweer education reform strategy. One might anticipate that a siloed gifted education programme is much less likely to succeed. Surely Tatweer and Mawhiba need to be brought into a closer relationship than is apparent at present.

I could trace no formal evaluation of the Foundation’s performance or of the progress to date on Mawhiba. Evidently it is not customary for Saudis to appear critical of any initiative which carries the name of their King.

Only one commentator is prepared to offer a public critique of Saudi progress on gifted education more generally.

In a presentation called ‘The Benchmarks of Gifted and Talented Education in Saudi Arabia’ given to an international conference in Abu Dhabi in October 2010, Dr Maajeeny, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at King Abdul Aziz University (KAU), says most parents, professionals and other stakeholders are not satisfied with progress to date because:

  • only a few gifted students are identified and less than half of those can access provision;

  • testing is of questionable quality and there is too much small scale practice rather than ‘systematic scientific services’;

  • there are too few qualified teachers concentrated in a small number of schools and too few researchers with expertise in the field;

  • there is limited funding available, limited training and few incentives to encourage staff to engage with gifted programmes;

  • attention is confined almost exclusively to STEM subjects; older students and adults are not properly served and pre-school services are not yet available;

  • public awareness is limited, while officials and administrators lack enthusiasm and some are reluctant to accept changes to accommodate the needs of gifted learners; and

  • effective co-ordination between service providers is ‘still random and primitive’.

This view an expert may be contrasted with the picture painted in the article I referenced earlier about educational progress in Saudi Arabia more generally.

This suggests that wider education reforms are facing active resistance from powerful conservative religious interests and that they are at risk of being sidelined as a consequence of changes in national leadership.

Final thoughts

While progress may be perceived as too slow by those who understand and support the initiative – and by the gifted learners who stand to benefit – the conservative faction in Saudi society will have the opposite view.

Which is why effective communication, consultation and awareness-raising are going to be so critical to the success of Mawhiba.

Will the Kingdom be able to introduce a full national programme for gifted and creative education, or will it always be a supplementary pathway, confined to relatively few forward-thinking schools?

The international competition is fierce. The Ninth National Plan reports that:

‘Efforts to foster talent, creativity, and innovation culminated with the Kingdom ranking 32 among 130 nations covered by the 2008 Global Innovation Index produced by the Business School for the World (INSEAD)’.

This is quite true, but the 2009-10 INSEAD rankings place the Kingdom 54th of 132 nations, a sizeable fall of 22 places. This position is retained in the 2010-11 rankings, with no deterioration, but no improvement either. Saudi Arabia is headed by neighbours like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain. If this is a reliable yardstick, then the Kingdom faces an uphill struggle to improve its relative international competitiveness.

Will Saudi Arabia successfully make the transition to a successful KBE, following in the footsteps of countries like Singapore and South Korea, or is it destined to remain with one foot in the present and the other anchored firmly in the past?

It is simply too early to say.


May 2011

Mawhiba: Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia (Part One)

This two-part post is intended to draw together the information available online about Mawhiba, the Saudi Arabian gifted and creative education programme.

Compiling the post has not been an easy task.

The Mawhiba website is oddly constructed. There are actually two parallel sites – one for Mawhiba and one for the Foundation that preceded and created it – though the latter frequently tips one back into the former. Several of the most significant pages on the Mawhiba side are still ‘under construction’.

The online architecture reflects the puzzling real-life relationship between the organisation overseeing Mawhiba (its full name is the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity) and Mawhiba itself.

Sometimes they are treated as quite distinct; sometimes as two sides of the same coin. Just occasionally the Foundation is also called Mawhiba. This can make it hard to interpret parts of the online narrative, particularly when they are generated by third parties whose relationship with either entity is unclear.

This third party material is also rather fragmented. Much of it has to be dredged up through exhaustive keyword searches. Significant chunks are in Arabic. While online translation tools struggle purposefully with the websites, they are not nearly so reliable when invited to tackle the PDFs that typically carry the important factual detail.

So preparing this material has required more detective work than usual. It has felt like piecing together a jigsaw with several missing pieces. I have drawn on all the material I could find at May 2011. If further documentation is published, or if readers have access to additional information that they can make publicly available, I cordially invite them to add it to the record in whatever way they prefer.

This is all rather surprising given the extensive involvement of international contractors in the design and delivery of Mawhiba, most of them working in English so presumably needing to have their work translated into Arabic.

It also shows up the limited depth and penetration of Mawhiba’s communications and awareness-raising strand, at least as far as the international audience is concerned.

The dearth of reliable information means that it is all too easy to underestimate or, conversely, to over-estimate the significance of what has been called:

‘the most comprehensive educational approach in the world to nurturing high performance and creativity’ (Room at the Top, page 48).

The real purpose of this post is to help us get Mawhiba properly into perspective.

Saudi Arabia and its Education System

We should begin with a short context-setting preface, to help those unfamiliar with Saudi Arabia and its education system to get their bearings.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest country in the Arabian peninsula and the 14th largest by area in the world. It covers a land mass similar in size to Western Europe, although over 95% is either desert or semi-desert.

Courtesy of NormanEinstein


The national population is about 26 million, but over 20% of them do not have Saudi nationality, including a huge influx of visiting workers. The capital city, Riyadh, has a population of 4.7 million. Other large cities such as Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Dammam have populations upward of 1 million apiece.

KSA is governed as a hereditary monarchy: since 2005 the King and Prime Minister has been Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Saud. (The Foundation that oversees Mawhiba was established by the King before he ascended the throne and he retained the role subsequently).

The country itself is named after the ruling family, which first assumed power in the 18th Century, although the Kingdom was founded as recently as 1932.

The education system comprises:

  • Kindergarten (ages 3-5) – non-compulsory and attended by about 11% of the relevant population;
  • Primary (ages 6-11 covering Grades 1-6). Children take the General Elementary School Certificate at the end of Grade 6;
  • Intermediate (ages 12-14 covering Grades 7-9). Pupils take the Intermediate School Certificate at the end of Grade 9; and
  • Secondary (ages 15-18 covering Grades 10-12). Students may attend a general, a religious or a technical secondary school. Those in general schools choose in their second year between three tracks: administration and social science, natural science, and shariah and Arabic studies. Technical schools may focus on industrial, commercial or agricultural studies.

Schools are segregated by gender but males and females follow the same curriculum and take the same examinations.

University students typically take a bachelor’s degree after four years of study. A master’s degree requires two further years and a doctorate three years more. Technical colleges and institutes offer courses leading to certificates and diplomas of up to three years’ duration.

The higher education sector has recently undergone rapid expansion and includes 24 public universities, 8 private universities and 45 technological colleges and technical institutes. There are 4,885 secondary schools, 7,826 intermediate schools and 13,626 primary schools. These serve some 450,000 teachers and around 4.6 million pupils.

(These figures are almost certainly already out of date but they serve as reasonable indicators of the relative size of the system.)

This US Embassy briefing provides additional accessible background material on education in Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom is engaged in a major and many-stranded education reform process, also instigated by the King. This is called Tatweer (meaning ‘Development’) and has its own website in English.

This recent press report describes vividly some of the shortcomings of the Saudi education system that Tatweer is designed to address, its limited impact to date and the huge obstacles that it needs to overcome. It suggests that some of these reforms will take a decade or even a generation to come to fruition, and there is real scepticism over the prospects of success.

The other Western news articles here and here and the Saudi take here provide more background on the purpose and scope of Tatweer. There is also a detailed delivery plan available online, dating from 2009.

National Development Plans

Since 1970, the Saudi Government has set out in a series of detailed five-year plans how it expects to reform and improve every aspect of national performance.

The most recent plans, available in English on the website of the Ministry of Economy and Planning, show how thoroughly the Kingdom has dedicated itself to the development path of a knowledge-based economy (KBE). They also position the national investment in gifted education within that broader context.

The current Plan, the Ninth, covers 2009-2013. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the country’s development as a KBE:

‘A knowledge-based economy is defined as “an economy that is capable of knowledge production, dissemination and use; where knowledge is a key factor in growth, wealth creation and employment, and where human capital is the driver of creativity, innovation and generation of new ideas, with reliance on information and communication technology (ICT) as an enabler”. Moreover, there is a positive correlation and mutual interaction between the “knowledge society” and the “knowledge–based economy”. In addition, “knowledge” has become a critical requirement for enhancing competitiveness of countries in the twenty first century.

Theory, experience and present international practices affirm that contemporary global drivers of economic growth are different than in the past. More than ever before in human history, the economy is now dependent on the knowledge factor for growth. To respond positively to these developments and ensure enhancement of competitive capacities of the national economy, it is essential for economic policies to pay attention to knowledge….

The Eighth Development Plan focussed on fundamental developments that laid the basis for heading towards a knowledge-based economy. These included starting implementation of the first five-year plan of the Science and Technology National Policy; adopting the National ICT Plan, the National Industrial Strategy, and the Strategy and Plan for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation; establishing the Knowledge City in Medina, and the technical zone of the Saudi Organization for Industrial Estates and Technology Zones in Dammam; proceeding with preparation of a new strategy for higher education (AFAQ); and advancing privatization.

The Ninth Development Plan adopts the drive towards a knowledge-based economy through focussing on education, which disseminates knowledge, paving the way for knowledge transfer and accumulation and thereafter knowledge generation, and utilisation of knowledge in various economic and social sectors, particularly in production and service activities. Through these endeavours, the Plan seeks to enhance the comparative advantages of the economy, add to it new competitive advantages, diversify it, and increase its productivity and competitiveness, as well as create appropriate employment opportunities for citizens.’

It continues:

‘A knowledge-based economy is based on utilisation of the outputs of the knowledge system to create new products and services through innovation. Although, according to the Global Innovation Index, innovation in the Kingdom is still a significant challenge, a springboard for development of innovation has been put in place. For example, national industries have developed significantly over the past three decades, and now have strong bases of knowledge upon which to build towards the new economy, particularly with the adoption of the National Industrial Strategy, and its implementation mechanism that espouses knowledge-based economy, and the Strategy for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation.’

The remainder of the Chapter identifies a series of challenges that need to be overcome, one of which is:

‘Giftedness, creativity and innovation: Growing interest in developing talent, creativity and innovation has been manifested in the adoption of a National Strategy for Fostering Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation, the establishment of the King Abdul-Aziz and His Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity, and the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Nonetheless, more efforts are needed to enhance the thrust of the drive towards a knowledge-based economy, and achieve excellence in universities and higher-education institutes, as well as of scientists, technologists and innovators.’

The plan includes two targets specifically relating to gifted education:

‘Increasing the number of (male and female) students who benefit from “giftedness and creativity” initiatives, to reach around 14 thousand annually by the end of the Plan.’

and, in the chapter on education:

‘Establishing a research unit for the gifted and qualifying existing centres to enable them to design, develop and implement special programmes for the gifted’.

There is also a descriptive piece on Mawhiba in Chapter 21, on Science, Technology and Innovation.

A Brief and Approximate History of Gifted Education in Saudi Arabia

One source suggests that there have been three distinct stages in the history of Saudi gifted education:

  • development of the National Project for Identifying and Servicing the Gifted;
  • implementation of that National Project; and
  • establishing the King Abdul Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity.

Elsewhere, we learn that the ‘General Document of Educational Policy’, produced in 1970, included the following provision:

‘It is very important to discover and identify the gifted learners among all Saudi young children and youth, nurture them by all means to unveil their potentials, and pay extra attention and efforts to provide them with special programs and appropriate opportunities that can be integrated easily into the Country’s Public Educational System.’ (Rule 57)

This led to the introduction of academic competitions and exhibitions, annual awards and scholarships and small-scale research.

More concerted efforts were made from 1991 when researchers from King Saud University and officials from the Ministry of Education and the General Presidency for Girls’ Education secured funding from the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology for a five-year programme to develop identification tests and enrichment activities in maths and science.

During this period a Bachelor of Education Degree in Gifted Education was also established in the Faculty of Education at King Saud University.

The Ministry of Education subsequently commissioned members of the same team to establish a ‘Gifted Identification and Fostering Programme’ in selected schools in some of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. The male students’ programme started in 1997 and the female students’ programme a year later.

These programmes included teacher training, the administration of identification tests, the introduction and evaluation of enrichment activities, and efforts to raise parental and public awareness.

The Ministry established its own directorate for male gifted education in 1999/2000 and, two years later, a parallel directorate for female students. The director of the former is accountable to the Minister of Education (who is also deputy head of the King Abdul-Aziz Foundation).

The directorate for male gifted education includes separate units responsible for Nurturing and Enrichment Programmes, Planning and Training and Discovering and Identification. It brokers a series of enrichment activities and ‘gifted Nurturing Centers’. The female equivalent presumably has a similar structure.

The Origins of the Foundation

To support these efforts, the King Abdul-Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity was founded in 1999, an independent non-profit organisation based in Riyadh and dedicated to identifying and supporting young gifted and talented Saudis. The King himself (then the Crown Prince) assumed the Presidency.

The Foundation was funded by King Fahad, the Crown Prince and other princes and businessmen. One source says that the total value of the Foundation is £50 million and that it also receives from the Government an annual running costs budget of about £2.5 million.

This record, reporting the first meeting of the Foundation, says that the King, the Crown Prince and Prince Sultan together donated 69 million Saudi Riyals (about £11.4m), 30 million was donated by the King, plus an annual one million Riyal contribution to ‘the King Abdul Aziz Organisation for the Care of Gifted Students’. The Crown Prince gave 29 million plus an annual grant of 500,000 Riyals and Prince Sultan a further 10 million Riyals.

Its original goals were to:

  • facilitate and foster giftedness, invention and creativity;
  • create professional pathways in medicine, environmental science, communication, education, the arts, telecommunication, engineering sciences and technology;
  • support and provide enrichment activities;
  • educate the population (parents, teachers and employers) about methods of nurturing gifts and talents; and
  • assist educational and professional institutions across the Kingdom to develop G&T education programmes.

Today the Foundation describes its mission thus:

‘To support the establishment and development of a creative environment and society so the talented and gifted individuals can harness and exploit their talents to serve the nation.’

And it identifies three main strategic goals: to nurture giftedness and creativity in both males and females; to support national abilities in generating innovative ideas; and to foster young, gifted and creative leaders in the field of science and technology.

Picture courtesy of FlickrJunkie

The Mawhiba Strategic Plan

Mawhiba, which literally means ‘gift’, ‘talent’ or ‘favour’ (and can be used as a name for either a boy or a girl) is essentially the Foundation’s 15-year strategic plan, launched in 2008 but prepared the previous year following an extensive consultancy by McKinsey and Company.

One used to be able to find online a Mawhiba Strategic Plan Presentation which appears to summarise the McKinsey work for the Foundation (but it seems to have been taken down since I first published this post).

The underpinning aspiration for the Project is expressed in terms of developing the infrastructure to support giftedness, creativity and innovation throughout the human life cycle. This initial ‘lifelong learning’ focus is almost immediately scaled back to focus on schooling, higher education and early working life.

The McKinsey team undertook extensive international benchmarking, a literature review and a domestic situation analysis. The benchmarking activity included a review of practice in 20 countries and 90 organisations as well as in-depth analysis of over 20 unnamed institutions in Finland, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and the UK.

The situational analysis identified four key developments in the Kingdom:

  • increasing emphasis on knowledge-based industries, so increasing the demand for innovation;
  • a growing youth population leading to higher levels of youth unemployment;
  • (rather curiously) the admission of the USA to the World Trade Organisation in January 2005, leading to increased competition; and
  • more general international competition for highly-skilled workers, leading to a domestic shortage in KSA.

The presentation goes on to list several initiatives already introduced as a response to this scenario, explaining that Mawhiba will complement these by feeding the pipeline that supplies young gifted and talented leaders.

The long term vision, set 15 years ahead in 2022 is:

‘To be a creative society with a critical mass of gifted and talented young leaders who are innovative, highly-educated and well-trained to support the sustained growth and prosperity of the Kingdom.’

This vision is to be realised through three consecutive five-year plans, the first completed in 2012-13 (so broadly aligned with the Kingdom’s national 5-year plans).

During the initial 5-year phase, five priority initiatives are recommended:

  • Mawhiba school partnerships covering both the primary and secondary sectors;
  • Mawhiba enrichment programmes, involving summer schools and after-school activity for the primary and secondary sectors, plus competitions and awards that also extend into the HE sector;
  • Mawhiba Young Leaders and Scholarship Programme, designed for those in tertiary/higher education and the initial stages of employment;
  • Mawhiba Creative Work Environment Initiative for those in the early stages of emplyment; and
  • an overarching awareness and communications initiative spanning the full age range apart from pre-school provision.

There is also reference to a research and policy unit that will offer cross-cutting support.

There is no explanation as to why none of the five initiatives address the pre-school phase: this is presumably set aside until the second five-year plan. A note confirms that there is no automatic transition between the four student-focused elements, each of which has separate selection criteria.

The presentation includes positive comments from several international experts consulted on the draft plan, but they counsel staged implementation, recommending the Saudis to draw initially on international expertise but to concentrate on building domestic capacity in the medium to long term.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2007 Edition)

One can trace the influence of this work on a Brochure subtitled ‘Special Issue for King Abdullah University for Science and Technology Inauguration 21 October 2007’.

It confirms that a ‘Strategy and Action Plan for Fostering Giftedness and Creativity’ has been developed by the Foundation in collaboration with McKinsey which prioritises the development of science, technology and leadership, but also personal and social skills.

It refers to five main components, but these are different to those described in the McKinsey publication. Instead we have reference to the Foundation’s existing portfolio of activities:

Programmes and services:

  • Mawhiba Summer Programmes – enrichment events of four weeks’ duration based in domestic and international universities. The summer schools will develop students’ cognitive abilities as well as personal, social and emotional skills. The initial series comprised 16 events catering for 550 students.
  • The ‘Imagine Service’ which aims to develop innovation in middle and high school students by encouraging them to develop their ideas with online feedback and support from experts in the relevant fields.
  • The ‘Shawer Service’ (I’m unclear why it is called this) which provides advice and counselling for gifted students, their parents and educators through an online service, a telephone helpline and face-to-face counselling.

Conferences and exhibitions: in 2006 the Foundation organised the ‘Scientific Regional Conference for Giftedness’ an international event to raise awareness of gifted education in the Kingdom and in the wider Arab world. In March 2008 it organised with Aramco the first Saudi Innovation Exhibition.

Competitions and awards. There is an annual award for scientific creativity designed for male and female innovators up to the age of 25 and two competitions in robotics.

The National Portal for Giftedness, Creativity and Innovation for young people, their parents, teachers and educators. This is described as ‘an electronic oasis’ and is not expected to be in place until March 2008.

Finally there is a Customer Service Centre providing support for all those engaged in delivering the services above.

The Mawhiba Brochure (2009 Edition)

By 2009, the Brochure has undergone substantive revision, but there are still two competing sets of priorities. The five identified by McKinsey are stated very briefly but the second half of the Brochure is an updated version of the 2007 edition, once again outlining the existing Foundation work programme.

This perhaps suggests that the integration of the McKinsey plan into the existing work of the Foundation took some considerable time and no little effort to bring about.

In this version, the Foundation’s three fundamental objectives are essentially: improving and expanding the education offer for gifted learners; promoting society’s awareness of gifted education and creativity; and supporting the Kingdom’s sustainable development.

The document goes on to state several guiding principles that are said to emerge from these objectives:

  • (as per McKinsey) focusing on all phases of the education system and beyond into employment;
  • ‘nourishing the ambition of reaching a shortlist which includes the best 3% of all Saudi students’;
  • building and developing creativity, leadership, critical thinking and innovation and developing advanced skills maths, science and IT;
  • working in collaboration with any organisation or institution (public or private) that supports the vision;
  • the importance of admitting candidates from different backgrounds and from all sectors and categories of Saudi society; and
  • the need to raise awareness of Foundation programmes as well as wider issues relating to giftedness and creativity

There is still material about programmes and services, conferences and exhibitions, competitions and awards. The online portal has become the ‘National Electronic Gate for Giftedness and Creativity’

‘ It aims to provide the users with quality interactive services that enable them to communicate through educational games, a multi-media library, special forums, and chat groups’.

The fifth priority is changed to ‘education and enlightenment’ but there is no text to describe what it entails. Maybe this is McKinsey’s awareness-raising and communication strand.

The Brochure also explains that, in collaboration with the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) the Foundation has established a parallel unified Arab strategy for giftedness with a vision for 2025. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed and the strategy approved at a Tunisia conference in December 2008.

This involves:

  • Approving national strategies for the sponsorship of giftedness and creativity;
  • Assigning national agencies and institutions to undertake them;
  • Improving existing opportunities for educating gifted people and promoting society’s awareness of the importance of giftedness and creativity; and
  • contributing to targeted sustainable development in the Arab countries

I have found no subsequent update on this parallel pan-Arab strategy, which may or may not be proceeding.


May 2011.