Gifted education: Discovery-learning is the answer

Targeted education for the gifted looked a thing of the past – but, with Brexit, it could rise again, says James Croft

James Croft

Targeted education for high-achievers could be what the UK needs if it suffers a Brexit brain drain, says James Croft

The role of targeted education programmes in stimulating higher achievement among gifted children has been, and remains, a fiercely debated topic in education – perhaps nowhere more so than in England, where more than a decade of concerted effort by Tony Blair and succeeding Labour governments has served only to intensify dispute about who should qualify for the limited funding on offer, and to increase tensions around the equity agenda.

Good ideas, political will and a strong delivery plan are not enough, after all, it seems. As all too often is the case, government neglect of the research apparatus necessary to capture the impact of such interventions allowed practitioner-led descriptive and correlational research to proliferate, leaving us with depressingly little to go on empirically. 

So when the funding dried up under the coalition government, and Ofsted panned out its vision, beyond an interest in the quality of provision for more able students specifically, to all pupils, so too did policy, leaving the shape of gifted provision to be decided by schools under the guidance of the various charities at work in the sector. And that, by most accounts, might well have been that. From a public policy perspective at least, gifted education looked dead in the water. 

Yet quite apart from Theresa May’s predilection for solutions involving improving access to selective education, there are good reasons to think that the importance of identifying and tracking or catering otherwise for the needs of advanced learners could well rise to the top of the policy agenda again. Brexit will soon be decided, and how, in the wider context of global trade, things are going to play out economically for us will start to become clear. There’ll be a different set of priorities in every area of policy, but given its well-evidenced connection with economic growth, the need for investment in human capital, especially among high-performers, is likely to figure prominently across all of them. Now seems a good time to establish how far we can be clear about what, if anything, works in selective and gifted education, and what the trajectories of future policy should be. 

Not unsurprisingly, in research published today, the Centre for Education Economics finds the majority of studies to be methodologically poor, making it difficult, if not impossible, to draw strong policy-relevant conclusions. More interestingly, what little rigorous evidence we do have suggests that neither school-level streaming nor gifted education programmes, on average, make much difference as ways of generating higher performance among gifted children. The existing literature leaves the field with considerable ambiguity about effective practices.

More research into gifted education

But more interestingly still, among these few empirical studies, a number coalesce in demonstrating positive effects for enrichment programmes combined with self-directed or individualised instruction – the former involving curricular modification to provide exposure to increasingly complex ideas and more open-ended problem-solving, the latter instructional modifications offering greater scope for independent, discovery-based learning.

Such strategies are not necessarily reliant on school-level tracking or streaming. Neither are they inconsistent with cognitive research on what expert learners need, nor with the literature demonstrating that traditional, teacher-directed approaches work best for most children. And intriguingly, they are characteristic of the educational models implemented by a number of high-performing economies, mostly in Asia, with whom we compete. For these reasons, there’s a strong case for further investigation.

Since none of these models has been evaluated in any way that makes causal inference valid, collaboration with in-country researchers around properly conducted trials should be a priority. But greater priority must be assigned to what works in the English context and making a start on randomised testing of different programmes. 

Resolve and investment are needed if we are to release the human capital of those at the high-performing or potentially high-performing end of the spectrum in ways that don’t undermine provision for other learners. We, therefore, recommend government endowment of a purpose-built independent research outfit, similar to what we already have in the Education Endowment Foundation for disadvantaged children, but in this case for the purpose of funding randomised trials to investigate what works in gifted education specifically.

Given the recommendations of the 2017 manifesto, this, one would have thought, would be a sensible place to start for a government committed, as Damian Hinds recently put it, to “letting the stars shine”. 

James Croft is the founder and director of the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) and a leading contributor to education policy formation in England and internationally.

‘What works in gifted education? A literature review’ by Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren, is published today by the CfEE, an independent thinktank working to improve policy and practice in education through impartial economic research

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James Croft

Director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education 

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