The Issue: Gifted and Talented - Best practice for all is best practice for the most able

24th October 2008 at 01:00
We've tried hothousing the gifted. Now the emphasis is on whole- school improvement, writes Victoria Neumark

Able children thrive when they manage their own learning, a new report confirms. Surveying 20,947 studies from across the world, a team from the Institute of Education's Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (Eppi) found that thinking skills, an enriched curriculum and personalised provision are more important than special classes in helping the able achieve.

The study calls for skills such as self-regulation and higher-order thinking to be highlighted in the classroom quality standards for gifted and talented education. The jury is still out on how best to configure learning groups for the gifted, but personalised teaching is absolutely key, whether in mixed-ability or accelerated groups.

Carrie Winstanley, who researches gifted and talented provision at Roehampton Institute, comments: "The Eppi review is important because it is systematic, objective and thorough. What it shows, more than anything, is that highly able pupils are a heterogeneous group and no easy blanket policies or pedagogies are going to meet all their needs."

So who are Gifted amp; Talented?

Gifted and talented provision has grown exponentially in the past decade, kickstarted by Ofsted's 2000 handbook, which demanded that every school make provision for able children. Summer schools mushroomed, boosted by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, based at the University of Warwick from 2002 to 2007, and now replaced by the Young Gifted and Talented programme. Schools appointed gifted and talented co- ordinators. They established registers to track their gifted (academically very able) and talented (advanced in one or more sporting or artistic areas). And they scratched their heads over how far their pupils matched the government definition of "the 5-10 per cent of pupils in each school who are achieving, or have the potential to achieve, significantly in advance of their year group".

If that percentage is prescritive, says Elizabeth Phillips, head of St Marylebone CofE school in Westminster, then it's "absolutely stupid". As a broad-brush measure, though, says Mike Beale, head of Holland Moor Primary in Lancashire, it helps heads to think and plan.

Originally derived from national academy research that suggested 10 per cent of inner-city pupils performed below their abilities, the percentage has different implications in different settings. For Liz Allen, head of the selective Newstead Wood Girls' School in Kent, where 100 per cent of pupils gain five good GCSEs, it is the 10 per cent who lack the confidence to match their abilities. For Billy Macalister, gifted and talented co- ordinator at Homewood School in Kent, it focuses attention on all students' learning. And Sam Mackey, co-ordinator at Burlington Junior School in Kingston, Surrey, uses the percentage to "overturn stereotypes; you look carefully at the behaviour and attainment of every child to try to find the ones who are gifted or talented."

Inclusive and differentiated

"The needs of able and talented youngsters need to be recognised and met in an inclusive framework," argues Belle Wallace, past president of the National Association for Able Children in Education (Nace) and pioneer of the framework Thinking Actively in a Social Context (Tasc). Recently, she led a study of 12 schools for Nace and London Gifted and Talented. Its main findings were that "best practice for able pupils is best practice for all pupils", so schools that focus on personalised learning, use tracking, mentoring, assessment for learning, enrichment activities and pupil involvement, raised the achievement of all pupils.

At Homewood, a 2,300-strong comprehensive, where 69 per cent of pupils gain five good GCSEs (39 per cent including English and maths), inclusion works by mix and match. "We enter students by age not stage," says Mr Macalister, pointing to the school's ever-rising exam results, the six students entering the sixth form this year with 14 GCSEs and seven Year 12s who have completed Open University foundation years. It works for everyone, he believes. For instance, of the school's 15 history AS students, eleven are still in Year 11. Termly projects culminate in problem-solving and presentation days where everyone can shine, while also matching the OCR exam board's key skills criteria.

At Burlington, Ms Mackey works with staff on building extension into every lesson, either by encouraging children to choose activities on a level that matches their subject understanding or by getting them to select demanding puzzles and open-ended projects from the "spread your wings box", if they have whizzed through lessons. "It's not just more work," he says. "That can seem like a punishment for doing well."


Burlington focuses on creativity, running puzzle days, maths and science weeks and weekly creative afternoons where all pupils choose from 15 teacher-led activities, from a magic club to podcasting. A reading circle and debating society are as popular as the usual sports and drama activities. "The whole school benefits from enrichment," says acting head Matt Blow. "You keep it fresh," adds Ms Mackey. "It works for all the children, but the gifted and talented take it to a higher level."

Mrs Phillips concurs: "We offer everything to all the pupils and everyone progresses as best they can." At St Marylebone, progress is reflected not only by the 83 per cent who gain five good GCSEs - and this from girls who speak 80 different languages and with 42 per cent on free school meals - but also in the many activities offered to its 909 pupils. The jazz orchestra, theatre company, jewellery and digital art workshops, maths competitions and discussions on humanitarian issues led Ofsted to applaud the school's "culture of praise, where students are free to feel adventurous" last year.

Personalised learning

"Real children's real needs lead the way," says Mr Blow. Mr Beale, Holland Moor, agrees. "Children vary so much, you have to put together what is right for them." In 1991, his school featured in The TES for its provision for prodigy Matthew Trout, now a high-flier in computer systems. Matthew learnt science at the local high school and was tutored by a university mathematician while still enjoying school.

"We've moved on a lot," says Mr Beale. "We use the excellent resources of our county and cluster, sharing dance with professionals or engineering at universities. We regularly run whole-school days on "super-learning" techniques, where children learn thinking skills, and we are much better now at personalising in class."

"If we truly want to help able children achieve better," says Carrie Winstanley, "we need to look at successful classroom practice and think about ways that the best responses to different pupils' needs in diverse settings can . be shared and implemented effectively."

At St Marylebone, every gifted pupil gets a termly interview that is fed back to all subject teachers. "We need to be led by pupils' interests," says Mr Macalister, citing Homewood student Olivia Hukins, who won second prize in a historical fiction competition run by the Historical Association and gained an A in history GCSE a year early.

Thinking skills and pupil voice

Learning beyond the classroom is absolutely vital, says Ms Allen. Newstead girls organise their own learning. "If there are 10 who want something, we'll run it," she says. Recently, a Year 10 group, dissatisfied with the geography syllabus, added environmental studies to the twilight GCSE sessions already on offer.

Sixth formers not only run most lower-school activities, they also work on the school development plan along with parents and staff, canvassing views from junior pupils. Last year, Year 12s taught a GCSE RE unit (with the teacher present) and achievement jumped for both year groups. This year they'll teach more humanities.

Ms Allen encourages senior students to represent the school at conferences too.

"It's beyond pupil voice," she says. "You have to create an environment where people can take risks, fail and assess how to do better."

- Eppi Centre report:

- "Raising the Achievement of Able, Gifted and Talented Pupils" by Belle Wallace. Free for London state schools from the Teacher Tools section on; schools outside London should go to

- Tasc in schools:


Include gifted and talented provision in your school development plan;

Personalise learning for all children, with portfolios of evidence;

Constantly review and discuss policy with all colleagues;

Build differentiation clearly into planning from the start;

Establish enrichment activities from day one: boredom not allowed!;

Trust children's own desire and ability to direct their learning; help them learn new strategies;

Experiment with the resources of local authorities, outside sponsors, parents and teaching assistants;

Be creative and flexible with the timetable and curriculum;

Communicate clearly and often with pupils, staff and parents.

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