Meeting the Needs of Pupils
Schools have a responsibility to meet the educational needs of all their pupils. Finola Stack, Headteacher of James Allen's Preparatory School, looks at the role of the 'gifted and talented' scheme.
'Gifted and Talented' is an oft-used but seldom fully understood term in education. Generally 'gifted' refers to those pupils who have strong intellectual or academic abilities, whereas 'talented' refers to pupils who excel in the other areas such as music, drama, art or in sports. The label used to describe these children should reflect their interests and curiosity. More important however is whether schools are meeting their needs and - where this is being done successfully - how other schools can learn from them.
Children who are exceptional academically, or gifted in a particular area, deserve to have their special learning needs met in an appropriately stimulating manner by suitably trained teachers and individual learning approaches. These children and young people are only able to demonstrate their abilities if they are given the opportunities to do so. In many independent schools around the country provision is made and teachers are trained to identify and enrich education for these pupils.
In the UK, children generally considered as gifted range from five to ten percent of the general population. In the total school-age population in England, that would be about 800,000 children. At my school, we believe that high intelligence and giftedness is present in any population regardless of socio-economic status. Statistics show that approximately 7% of the school age population is educated at independent schools; according to research by the Independent Schools Council however, approximately 14% of adults in England received an independent education at some point during their school career and a huge number of them do not come from privileged backgrounds.
At the ISC Annual Conference in March, Diana Johnson MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Schools stated: '...it's clear why parents may choose to send their children to independent schools - because many independent schools have excellent teachers, great educational facilities and are dedicated to high standards of teaching.' She acknowledged that the Government is looking to the independent sector for examples of excellence in education, such as 1:1 teaching and small group work. However, the guidance from policymakers has, on the whole, been less than helpful in advising schools how to incorporate practical strategies into their provision. From the Government's perspective, Diana Johnson made a statement to the Select Committee on 1st February 2010 stating that gifted and talented children had been successfully supported by several initiatives in different phases. The first phase had taken place from 1997 to 2002, with gifted and talented pupils supported through the Excellence in Cities programme. Even at this early stage of Government initiatives; the Excellence in Cities and later the Young Gifted and Talented programme (which was set up in 2007 to provide support and opportunities for gifted and talented children aged 4 to 19), the guidance regarding the identification of Gifted and Talented pupils, the criteria to be used and numbers involved was all very non-descript and unhelpful in practical terms.
Part of the problem is that most of the case studies available centre around pupils from 14 to 19 years of age. As a result the provision has been patchy, despite there being very good practice in some individual schools. It is in these schools that there is hope for the able child to be stimulated with teaching and resources to succeed and with a love of learning for the future. An Ofsted survey published last December reported that, 'schools which focus on progress for all pupils were more likely to plan lessons that challenged their gifted and talented pupils.' Parents who choose independent education expect the school to ensure that their son or daughter will 'achieve their potential'. This is a well-worn phrase, but one that makes sense to most parents and often one of the key reasons why they choose independent over maintained schools. Many independent schools use the phrase in their aims or mission statement and to ensure that they achieve this aim, particularly in relation to the more able children, they employ highly qualified and experienced staff who teach in smaller class sizes with excellent resources at their disposal. They have the independence to adopt a diversity of teaching styles and promote a range of learning methods; enrichment which entails adding breadth and depth, acceleration involving increasing the pace and skipping content and skills that are already mastered.
Independent schools use a variety of means to identify the highly able in their schools and then provide specialist teaching to meet the particular needs of those pupils while ensuring that all lessons contain sufficient challenge. These schools will have a register of the gifted and talented pupils, as they will for those children who may need academic support. Once identified, an individual education programme will be drawn up and appropriate intervention given. This may mean a pupil or a small group is withdrawn for specific lessons, or pupils will be given the opportunity to take part in activities which stretch and challenge them as part of their class lessons. Schools give these pupils opportunities in individual subjects and disciplines and through cross-curricular activities to excel and achieve their potential. Science, maths, languages and music are well-tried successful routes to extending children of all ages. Add ICT into the mix and a wealth of opportunities is available to talented teachers to provide the right amount of interesting and challenging work within the framework of the school's curriculum.
But it is not only the intellectual side of the child that has to be considered; the emotional and social well-being has to be monitored as well. It is true that some exceptionally able children tend to make friends with older pupils of similar intellectual ability and can find they have little in common socially with their peers. Providing opportunities to develop good social skills with their peer group while allowing them to mix with older children can have very positive results. Professor John Geake, author of The Brain at School was extremely helpful when I worked with a particularly gifted pupil a few years ago and had very sound advice on how we can support these children educationally and emotionally.
One of the central claims that the ISC makes for the benefit of an independent education is the quality, excellence and diversity offered by its member schools. One of the many benefits is that independent schools can meet the needs of a diverse group of pupils and, in particular, pupils identified as highly able. 'Gifted and talented' describes children and young people with an ability to develop to a level significantly ahead of their year group, or with the potential to develop those abilities. Gifted learners in our schools have abilities in one or more academic subjects, for example, maths and English, science or a foreign language and talented learners that we identify have practical skills in areas such as sport, music, design or creative and performing arts. Skills such as leadership, decision-making and organization are also taken into account when identifying and providing for gifted and talented children.
With the availability of increasing numbers of bursaries and scholarships, most independent school populations are ethnically and socially diverse and many are committed to partnerships with local communities and maintained schools. This makes giving the more able pupils in any school, whether independent or maintained, the possibility of an enriched education. It is true that they have to reach the school's academic criteria, but once in an independent school these children are given the encouragement and specialist teaching to achieve their best based on inquiry and creativity. Building confidence is at the heart of any successful teaching. Children who are confident in themselves and their capabilities become excellent, independent learners. Their success as learners is not necessarily reflected in examination achievement; there is current debate and sufficient anecdotal evidence to support the claim that our examination system is the fundamental problem, with children too focused on getting the right answer to pass the required examinations and not enough opportunity for independent thinking and creativity. The involvement of older pupils helping younger ones is an effective method which does not reduce the teaching commitment but enhances it and can be highly motivating for all the participants. In a recent Pre-Prep 'Maths Week' our Year 2 children were helped by the Year 12 AS level Physics students during a visit to the laboratory to discover the principles of electric motors.
In order for better provision outside the independent sector, what is required is a serious review by policymakers of existing provision. With greater consistency and integration of policy that is put into practice, gifted and talented pupils would be better provided for in the future. The first step could be to heed the recommendations of the Primary Review (2010) for the need for educationalists and policymakers to both understand and assess children's individual differences and to train teachers in investigative and problem-solving techniques. One of the ways might be through the Independent-State School Partnership Forum advocated by Diana Johnson. The Rose Report considered what the primary curriculum should contain and how the content and teaching of it might foster children's different and developing abilities during primary years. In his review, Sir Jim Rose suggests that 'the appetite and zest for learning of children in their primary years is unrivalled,' and that primary age children must not only learn what to study but how to study. This can be achieved through children questioning what they need to know and what they want to know, to practice new skills and challenge themselves, to think for themselves and be active and pro-active learners. We can educate children to question what we teach them and to be inspired to understand that the mental processes of abstract thinking and reasoning can be developed through experiences and trying out new things, which must include getting things wrong and that being faced with a challenge is a learning experience to be embraced. This is achieved every day in single-sex and co-educational independent schools and should be the right for all children in education.