By Terry Wrigley. Based on an article by Valsa Koshoy and Catrin Pinheiro-Torres (Brunel University) in British Educational Research Journal, Dec 2013
Recent research has highlighted the confusion in government policies for children labelled Gifted and Talented. The policy was introduced in injudicious haste and with unclear reasoning, initially as part of Excellence in Cities (1999) then spread across the country, subjected to annual changes of definition, diminishing funds and finally an expectation that schools should pursue it independently without guidance or support.
It was one of many soundbite policies. The motive may have been an attempt to retain middle class children in state comprehensives. It was also supposedly intended to ensure that bright children from poorer families were noticed and helped to flourish.
There is immense confusion about what ‘gifted and talented’ means. The assumption at the DfE appears to have been that ability is fixed and innate, but this is widely contested. For example Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton argue that we should enable everyone, without exception, to develop all their talents to the full. They oppose the notion that a fixed percentage of the population are members of a distinct group of gifted and talented individuals. The US has a long history of identifying ‘gifted children’ through IQ tests, which neglects the diversity of practical or creative talents.
Being labelled ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ can even be damaging. It might be negatively viewed by peers, or you might think skill comes without effort. As Carol Dweck has shown, believing that your abilities are fixed leads people to be afraid of making mistakes and avoid taking risks, in case this exposes them as not so gifted after all. The terminology of ‘giftedness’ suggested, for many teachers, a very rare person, a Mozart or Einstein.
Using questionnaires and interviews, the researchers have exposed a mess of understanding and muddled practice. Many schools label children as gifted and talented at the age of 5 or even 2 or 3 years old. In most cases, the children are provided with more out-of-school activities but little was done inside the classroom. An Ofsted evaluation in 2003 showed that they were typically given additional rather than more challenging work.
Despite the fact that a register was supposed to help notice gifted and talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds, few schools do any socio-economic or ethnic monitoring to ensure this is happening. Since there is no way of identifying latent ability, this inevitably favours children whose parents have already given them plenty of opportunities. To those who have, more shall be given.
Children from poorer backgrounds are systematically deprived of opportunities to develop. Their parents can’t afford to buy them attractive books, to pay for music lessons, to travel. The children hang around bored through the long summer holidays, unable to afford activity schemes or sports schools. The parents are less likely to have had an education which helps them recognise the educational benefit of science or nature programmes on TV or visits to museums. The only socially just ‘gifts and talents’ policy would be to provide rich and diverse experiences from an early age.
Children who are particularly advanced at maths or music or drama should be given every opportunity to develop their creativity, including expert coaching and the chance to collaborate sometimes with children with similar abilities and enthusiasms - difficult to manage in a standardised content-laden and test-driven curriculum. But other children who have never had the chance also need the opportunity to discover new interests and possible talents. A much better model would be children’s centres for out-of-hours learning and holiday schemes, or the Venezuelan-style youth orchestras and music schools which are open to all.