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Excellence by design can reverse inequality

Much greater use should be made of programmes to tap the potential of gifted and talented pupils, writes Deborah Eyre

When my son was at primary school, he took part in the non-competitive sports day every year. The rationale was that all children felt valued, not just those who excelled. But pupils loathed the event, parents were confused, and sports day lost its place as a school highlight.

My child did not excel at sport and was one of those whom this event was supposed to protect, but he detested the day. He found it pointless, crushingly dull and had to be dragged to it each year. Those who did excel hated it even more. They wanted to compete and often sports day was the one area where they could shine and gain confidence and self-esteem. My son and his peers did not resent those who did well. They admired them and it was a spur to achieve themselves.

I was reminded of this when reading criticisms of the focus on gifted and talented pupils. Many schools have long operated a non-competitive academic programme. The same rationale is given and the same issues arise. There are children who are aware of their own ability but do not realise that judged against others they are outstanding. They often have inappropriately low aspirations - especially if they come from low-achieving families. There are learners without the self-discipline to excel alone who need the motivating spur of competition. There are learners who know they are gifted but who feign ignorance in such a system.

This approach depresses standards, lowers self-esteem and lowers aspirations. Elitism? Yes, but as Baroness Warnock said, "What is so wrong with elitism?" If schooling succeeds, those capable of excellence will emerge in a range of areas and we should be proud of them.

The gifted and talented focus is about designing for excellence. Every school must be empowered to create opportunities that enable individuals to achieve excellence in a wide range of areas. It is about the system aiming high, not just for competence.

If schools do not anticipate excellence, and design accordingly, then success will be limited to outstanding individuals succeeding against the odds. Every school should be able to tell Ofsted how they design for excellence across the school culture and within each subject.

The tricky part is matching opportunities to pupils - knowing who is capable of achieving excellence and in which areas. Research suggests that the most reliable indicator is prior performance. In other words, those who show an aptitude with a ball in early life are best placed to excel in ball sports. However, just as in soccer basic ball control must also be accompanied by higher-level skills in reading the game and anticipating how to respond, so too in cognitive areas the higher-level skills involve using basic skills as well as fluency with them. Sometimes early promise does not go on to be matched by higher-level fluency and sometimes outstanding higher-level fluency compensates for moderate basic skills.

Teachers need some kind of shorthand to make this workable. Currently schools are being asked to create a register of pupils they think have the ability to benefit from advanced opportunities. They are encouraged to make use of all indicators available including cognitive ability, MidyisYellis tests, national curriculum tests and, crucially, internal teacher assessments. But successful schools do not rely on this one way process of identifying and matching to advanced opportunities. They also work in reverse, by making some advanced opportunities widely available and using performance in them as an indicator. This enables a continual reshaping of the register so that all pupils are potential candidates for it.

But the match between needs and opportunities must be a live activity rather than focusing on creating a register. Academic review meetings for all pupils with regular, scheduled discussion with learners should shape this match and be the pivotal point for sustaining ambition and motivation.

Is the gifted and talented focus justified? Arguments against it are coloured by the 11-plus experience, in which pupils are selected at one point in their lives to go to a specialised school. Unlike the 11-plus, the gifted and talented focus deliberately leaves all pupils in their own community school rather than placing them elsewhere and supports and enhances the school-based offer. This approach enables teachers to identify potential high performers at any point in their school career and in a much wider range of domains than the traditional 11-plus. It is truly comprehensive education, not the same for everyone but personalised to meet individual needs.

Some schools have been slow to give the gifted and talented agenda its due significance. Perhaps in some schools the leaders have failed to recognise its importance in delivering overall school improvement. A minority of schools, however, have deliberately chosen not to prioritise this agenda, saying it is divisive. They think the current system is equitable. It is not. It is hugely inequitable and has been for many years.

The winners in the current school system are the middle-class and the socially- advantaged. By failing to address the gifted and talented agenda, some schools are deliberately allowing this inequity to continue. They are actively failing to take the steps that would give some of their pupils the support they need to fulfil their potential. Is your school among them?

Deborah Eyre is director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at the University of Warwick

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