Responsibility- devolving to schools. But are they up to it?


Most agree that our most gifted and talented pupils deserve special support in their education.

Though some teachers and schools, a minority it has to be said, have been less than keen to identify gifted and talented pupils, as they see this approach as elitist, the Government and opposition parties acknowledge the need to identify and support this group, both in and out of the school environment.

The Government has been running centrally co-ordinated programmes in support of young gifted and talented pupils since 1997. Some successes have been claimed .For instance, regional collaboration in support of Gifted and Talented education in every Government region – along with the introduction of a network of 170 High Performing Specialist Schools. Materials for teachers have also been introduced to help them tailor their planning and teaching, providing structured feedback to pupils and parents and to help identify appropriate support for the most able children.

The DCSF Select Committee last week looked at the programme with the help of expert witnesses. The experts identified some positives but also registered concerns over the historical approach with one witness characterizing it as ‘inconsistent and incoherent,’   reflecting ‘a stop go approach’. Blame for this was attributed to shortcomings in strategic leadership.  The experts, including Professor Deborah Eyre, former Director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, University of Warwick, were giving evidence in a one off committee session to look at recent changes to the Gifted and Talented programme and to try and establish whether the programme represented public money well spent.

The Department had contracts with the CfBT Education Trust to manage the YG&T—Young, Gifted and Talented—Learner Academy and with Capita Education  to provide training, guidance and support for leading teachers of gifted and talented education and educators.  Together the DCSF CfBT and Capita have managed and delivered the national programme for gifted and talented education at national level.  The Government is now cutting back on significant elements of the programme, including the Gifted and Talented Academy and wants instead to mainstream support for gifted and talented through schools, under the umbrella of the National Strategies managed by Capita Education services on behalf of the DCSF. The Strategies are, as it happens, in their last year of delivery.

The Minister Diana Johnson looking to the future said that School improvement partners (SIPs) will be expected to play a role in ensuring that there is a focus in all schools in supporting gifted and talented pupils. Ofsted too will look   at provision in schools in its inspections. In addition, the new system of school report cards, currently being introduced will ensure that schools remain focused on this issue. The Minister denied that a decision had been made  to focus primarily on the most disadvantaged pupils ,at the expense of mainstream gifted  pupils, although it was important, she said, to target the most disadvantaged  and to resource this. The Government is keen to push its personalized learning agenda and to stretch each and every pupil. Although there is some misconception though corrected during these hearings that that the scheme focuses just on academic ability. The Gifted label actually applies to academic abilities, the talented to other abilities including sporting prowess.

Professor Eyre of Warwick University who had been responsible for setting up the initial Government scheme, through NAGTY, told MPs there was a feeling in some circles that the “gifted and talented initiative is to increase social mobility”  “I think there are a variety of stakeholders who have goals and purposes for the gifted and talented programme and they are in tension to each other and sometime in opposition to each other,” she said. “There is a sense… that the purpose of the gifted and talented initiative is to increase social mobility and that’s its main purpose, even if that means holding back other people to allow some particular child [to catch up].” She and others giving evidence agreed that also some schools were concerned about promoting the needs of gifted children because it was seen as “elitist” and that some viewed as elitist rater than an equal opportunities issue.  Professor Eyre continued “I think the sooner that gifted and talented stops being seen as an elitist issue and the sooner it starts being seen as an equal opportunities issue the better,” she said. “If you pick somebody by definition you are always going to not pick somebody [else] and I think that’s an issue that has got to be considered within society as a whole.”

Jon Coles, Director General of Schools at DCSF, said that the anti-elitist attitude was   now evident in only a small number of schools and over 800,000 gifted and talented pupils had now been identified, which speaks for itself.  Coles was pressured by the Chairman Barry Sheerman to provide evidence that the scheme was working, and that the £67m of public money so far spent on support represented value for money.  Coles said that there is an independent evaluation that assesses the scheme which is positive.  However, Sheerman pointed out that this was  not what is termed a longitudinal study. A longitudinal study, of course, is one that has followed the same pupils over a long period to check progress. Such a study had apparently been administered by Warwick University but ended after the first phase of the contract.  It did not however continue as part the agreed subsequent contract. Coles however was not aware of the study and indeed had his doubts over whether it actually existed   but gave an assurance to the committee that he would clarify the facts in writing.

The first phase in the Governments programme, from 1997 to 2002, saw Gifted and Talented pupils supported through Excellence in Cities. This was aimed at “transforming the culture of low expectations and achievements by introducing more effective in-school and out-of-hours provision for Gifted and Talented learners. This was focused on able children in specific areas of deprivation.” The second phase saw the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth was established at Warwick University in 2002 (NAGTY). It had 150,000 members identified as being in the top five per cent of pupils in England and had a budget of around £25m. The third, three year   phase, starting in 2007, now coming to an end, was managed by CfBT Education Trust. CfBT Education Trust built on the work of Warwick University and the best practice that it had identified.  The central element of the CFBT managed contract is the Learner Academy. It is in fact a ‘virtual academy’ – an online resource and access point for workshops and courses for learners, teachers and providers. This is a web based hub for all services and stakeholders delivering a programme of G&T, accredited activities designed to aid progression while encouraging self-motivation. The YG&T programme also funds a number of other activities including Regional Partnerships; YG&T helpline; Support for partnerships; City GATES; Excellence Hubs and a National Register, a  database of information about schools and learners identified as being G&T within any given local authority. An innovative online analysis tool was developed too  which enables LAs to make year on year comparisons and analyses by phase, gender, ethnicity and FSM which informs G&T provision planning.

The Ministerial Task Force set CfBT a target of recruiting 250,000 members to the Learner Academy, a target it has exceeded, as membership of the Leaner Academy currently stands at 229,854 learners. An additional 107,000 former NAGTY members have been transferred to the Academy. Since November 2008 there have been more than 1.9 million visitors to the Learner Academy with almost 0.5 million of these accessing secondary resources and a further 300,000 accessing primary resources

Experts at the hearing expressed worries that, given the importance attached to identifying and supporting gifted and talented pupils for the individuals concerned but also for the economy and its competitiveness, the continuous changes and lack of continuity in the programme, might be undermining its effectiveness.  The chairman, Barry Sheerman, felt that the considerable churn in Ministers and senior civil servants at the DCSF and its predecessor department   might have affected the programmes continuity and leadership as might the lack of a political champion in the form of Tony Blair or Andrew Adonis.  The new  approach in devolving nearly  all responsibilities to schools for gifted and talented could mean that much of the success and expertise developed over time dissipates as the policy comes full circle, with schools  now taking the lead role ( with many different priorities to juggle) . It was resistance after all and a lack of focus in schools that prompted the engagement of Warwick University in the first place, to target gifted and talented pupils.  Best practice requires a combination of in and out of school targeted support activities and in ensuring that these efforts are coherent, complementary and mutually supportive.

There are real concerns among experts that targeted support will become a bit of a lottery if largely left up to schools.  And what will happen when the National Strategies come to an end? Surprisingly, perhaps, this question was not pursued by the Committee.


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