Many years ago I taught a student – we’ll call him Josh – who was an all-round high achiever: strong in academics, an excellent sportsman, and engaged in the classroom. Lately, however, Josh had started to behave differently. When asked if anything was wrong, he explained he had received a letter from the school to let his parents know that he no longer met the criteria for the gifted and talented programme. “Aren’t I clever anymore?” Josh asked, with that typical teenage mix of genuine hurt concealed by a thin veneer of bravado. Unsurprisingly, it was a thought-provoking moment.
Josh did go on to achieve great things, but his reaction is just one reason that our school’s gifted and talented policy is now based on “stretch and challenge” for all students, not just the privileged few.
Privileged is an apt word to use, as evidence shows that higher-attaining students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds don’t make the same progress as their more affluent peers.
Our brains continue to develop and adapt well into adulthood; in adolescence, they are still being moulded. Ability is not genetically pre-determined, but malleable and environmentally dependent. Although prior attainment is a strong predictor of future attainment, it is far from infallible: we believe students should be set mastery goals appropriate for their current attainment rather than performance goals.
When students’ understanding of content and concepts is secure, they should be provided with expert models to emulate, and be given complex and open-ended tasks to challenge them. How is it possible for a student who is behind to catch up unless their work is challenging? All students should be working hard and should be supported to do so.
Gifted and talented for all
So, how do you develop an inclusive stretch and challenge policy for all?
Although we still have a gifted and talented register, teachers are asked, and expected, to focus on stretching all pupils in addition to those who have been identified as G&T.
We provide a rich curriculum including Latin and Classics for all our key stage 3 students. Additionally, opportunities for stretch and challenge need to extend beyond classroom walls. A recent visit to our partner college in Oxford saw our students being taken on a tour by Malala Yousafzai. In another current initiative, teachers are participating in a lecture series on topics they are passionate about: so far, we have heard about Victorian writers’ responses to social inequality and an overview of American history.
Our students go to the theatre, take part in formal debates, compete competitively in maths, science and a range of sports and help other students with learning difficulties. Our definition of gifted and talented recognises that all students have something to offer: we support each other to achieve our full potential.
We need to provide our students with a high-quality education, whether academic or vocational, which enables them to make a success of their lives.
That success can be difficult to define. Some studies suggest that a child’s emotional health is far more important to adult satisfaction levels than their performance in exams. Instead of encouraging competition, maybe we should empower our students to capitalise on their own aspirations, not those that are imposed upon them.
We continue, as always, to support and inspire our highest attainers to become the best they can be, and indeed all our learners to do the same, while maintaining the balance between excellence and fairness. Consistently high expectations for all is imperative: all our students have the right to an education that meets their needs. This way we all gain – not just the chosen few.
Julie Smith is director of teaching and learning at Wyedean School