In 2011 I was given a unique opportunity to visit any country I wished in the world to see how they educated their more able children. One product of this was a book, the other a growing admiration for the work of Professor Jo Renzulli of Connecticut University, whose 'Whole School Improvement Programme' argued that an effective programme for the more able in a school raised the standards for every child. He used the phrase, 'A rising tide lifts all ships'. This chimed in with something I saw in every country I visited: the schools with a good programme for their gifted and talented children were, without exception, the schools that were ranked as outstanding for all their children, at whatever level of ability and achievement they operated.
I wanted to know more about why this was so. If being given the opportunity to travel the world was one excitement, the chance to design a Gifted and Talented programme in Dubai was another. What an opportunity! The chance to start from scratch with a clean piece of paper in a school that had made it clear it was willing to spend more time and money than the average on the quality of its teaching and learning.
So who are these 'more able' children? In Singapore, they are the top 1% of the age cohort. In Australia, it's the top 30%. In Hungary, amazingly, it's everyone. The 'Hungarian Genius' programme is based on the assumption that every Hungarian child is a genius. As a rough ball park figure, the more able are usually defined as those who show ability significantly above the average for the year group. Another rudimentary measure would be to say that in an all-ability class of children with 26 pupils in it, the more able would complete a piece of work set the whole class in around half the time it would take the child ranked 13th.
Yet of course one of the common mistakes is to assume that the more able are all-rounders. Some are, I suspect the majority are not, and show their ability in sometimes a very narrow range of subjects only. Good schools do not look for a level score of high marks, but for 'spikes' in achievement, and feed the child's strength accordingly.
It's actually a misnomer to call what's planned for these children a 'Programme'. It's more of a project. 'Programme' implies something you sit an exam for, and then are either in or out of. That's not how it works with us. The idea is to analyse and get to know each child personally, see if they have any special ability or talent, and then feed that passion in the belief that it will light up the whole child. How do we do it? We use all the accepted techniques, such as acceleration (speeding up a child's progress through the curriculum), compaction (cutting out bits that the bore the able child or which they don't need), enrichment (spicing up the curriculum and letting the child go off-piste, and even gather flowers by the wayside), project work, mentoring (when a child's thirst for subject knowledge outgrows the school, finding an external mentor such as a University don to take them further) and giving the more able children the chance to meet and mingle with each other.
In this scheme, a child identifies themself as gifted and talented by the quality of the work they produce, rather than having to sit an exam. At the heart of all we do is the realisation that the biggest killer for the most able child is boredom. If they cease to be excited about learning, and it stops being fun, they can rapidly cease to be high-achievers, but turn in to a recluse or the clown of the class and be disruptive. We've learnt a thing or two as well from the experience of the rest of the world.
Do you know that you're twice a likely, globally, to be recognised as gifted and talented if you're boy than if you're a girl? That is you praise a child for the quality of their work, rather than the effort they put in to it, you can reduce their performance by as much as 75%? That many young people actively avoid being identified as among the more able, because to them it means more demands placed on them, higher expectation and less time on the computer chatting to their friends. It's so easy for the adult world to assume a child understands what's so brilliant about a place at Harvard, when to them it's far more important to know if they're going to be invited to the party everyone else is going to at the weekend?
And how does a rising tide lift all ships? If your teachers are dedicated to devising a personal learning programme for each child, actively seeking to find what each child does well and continually revisiting how and what they teach to see if it is exciting for young people, you don't just speed up the bus for those in the front seat, but for everyone in it. You put sparkle in to the water every child drinks. Perhaps we've given it the wrong name. Maybe we should copy the Hungarians, and talk about ‘Genius programmes’, on the basis that every one of our children has at least one gift or talent, and most have many more. And a final point: we're looking for potential as much as actual achievement. We don't just need to harvest the riches; we need to identify, nurture and plant the seed.
Written by Martin Stephen, Project Leader for Gifted and Talented at Hartland International School
Dr Martin Stephen was one of the youngest Heads in the UK when he was appointed Headmaster of The Perse School, Cambridge. In 27 years of Headship, he followed The Perse by becoming High Master of The Manchester Grammar School, and then became only the second man in history to hold both the ‘High Master’ posts in the UK, moving to become High Master of St Paul’s School, London. He was elected Chairman of HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistress’s Conference ) in 2004. In 2012 he was funded to visit any country he chose in the world to see how they educated their most able children, and is joint author with Ian Warwick of the acclaimed book Educating the More Able Student. What Works and Why.