We must expect magic from every student

Gifted and talented schemes too often perpetuate disadvantage. Instead, we should encourage all children to fulfil their potential
13th February 2015, 12:00am


We must expect magic from every student


Picture the scene. I arrive home from work to be greeted by my young daughter. It is the start of a new school year but this hasn't dimmed her enthusiasm; her curiosity has been sparked anew. "Daddy," she says excitedly, "I'm special. I'm gifted and talented." I bask in a cosy glow of pride.

But we cannot all win prizes. What if the scene were to play out in reverse?

My daughter returns home - but with her curiosity stamped upon because she hasn't been identified as possessing such "talents". I hug her close and reassure her that she has all the potential on the planet and that her efforts will mean she can write the success story of her life regardless.

Perhaps I would then ask questions about such a programme. And when you begin to ask these questions, you find plenty of problems and unintended consequences undermining the entire edifice of lists, tracking and planning that makes up most gifted and talented (Gamp;T) programmes.

The search for "giftedness" has a long history. In 1869 Francis Galton tried to get to the root of the phenomenon in his book Hereditary Genius. And in the early 20th century the Stanford-Binet IQ tests became universally known and popular. Rather sagely, each of these intelligence trailblazers raised questions about their own findings and recognised the incredibly plastic nature of intelligence. No doubt they would be urging caution over the worst excesses of today's search for giftedness: ill-considered Gamp;T badges, endless bureaucratic lists and worse.

In England, a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has come and gone. A national register of Gamp;T students was initiated then quickly dropped. Politicians and schools inspectorate Ofsted were quick to pay lip service to such programmes, but their efficacy was unproven and they were swiftly ditched. Many school leaders and teachers have grown increasingly sceptical about the whole idea.

The disconnect between the drive for educational equality signalled by pupil premium funding for disadvantaged students and Gamp;T programmes - which are too often bereft of those very same students - is marked. Gamp;T programmes can perpetuate a subtle bigotry that solidifies the social inequalities they purport to challenge. Ofsted and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw have been quick to criticise non-selective state schools for "failing to nurture scholastic excellence" (see the 2013 report The Most Able Students). Wilshaw hoped to bolster the comprehensive ideal of every student achieving their potential, but he was grossly wrong in thinking this aim would be met by Gamp;T programmes. It won't.

The evidence shows that disadvantaged children don't make it on to Gamp;T lists. For example, Educating the Highly Able, a report by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, finds that "relatively few" free school meals students are identified as gifted and talented.

And figures released by the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission last June show that disadvantaged children who start out as high-attainers are often overtaken by average children from better-off families.

So it seems legitimate to ask: do Gamp;T programmes play a part in worsening social inequality?

Graft and tenacity

Many schools are now eschewing Gamp;T programmes and attempting to create a culture of excellence for all. Pete Jones, director of learning at Les Quennevais School in Jersey, spurns outdated notions of what a gifted programme should look like. "I would much prefer the Gamp;T label to stand for something we can all believe in, like graft and tenacity," he says. "We should focus our finite resources on teaching all students how to put in the hours of practice to become great at something, with the tenacity to keep going no matter how hard the challenge."

We should rightly question the impact on the 90 per cent of students who are not selected. The message that they have no "talent" is implicit and subtly corrosive for a school's culture.

The "Pygmalion effect" - where higher expectations lead to better performance - means that Gamp;T programmes become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The students who are selected early on invariably never leave. Positive expectations are heaped on them and the results follow. The rest? Well, they didn't make the list: sky-high results are seemingly beyond them.

Gamp;T programmes have the potential to damage the students who aren't selected, then. But what are the benefits for those who make the cut? Beyond some pleased parents, there is little evidence for the validity of such programmes. They are often bolt-on initiatives, whereas expert subject-specific teaching in the classroom has been proven to improve academic attainment. We should question the energy and money channelled into Gamp;T programmes when they show no sign of having a positive impact on attainment.

The Ofsted report mentioned above lists the characteristics of schools that serve their able students well: having high expectations; effective transition between primary and secondary; a flexible curriculum; groupings that stretch and challenge students; and, of course, expert teaching. We should therefore target our money and time at boosting aspiration by ensuring that we have a great teacher in every classroom.

The bureaucratic lists of Gamp;T programmes should be consigned to the past and we should seek to unleash excellence in every lesson. I want my daughter to have the expectation that she can do anything. I want her to know that she doesn't need to make it on to a flawed list in order to use her efforts and abilities to wrest every success from life.

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York and tweets at @HuntingEnglish

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