Driving gifted education

Might a new type of school help us make the most of our outstanding students? Tim Dracup calls for Learning Schools with university, government and community support.

One lit bulb between two unlit onesIn 2011, Nick Gibb, then a minister in the Department for Education (DfE), explained the Government’s view of gifted and talented education thus:

‘The Government’s approach is to give school leaders greater power and control to drive improvement in their schools so that they have the freedom and flexibility to offer tailored educational opportunities that will ensure that the most academically able children receive appropriate challenge and stretch.’

This formulation noticeably isolates academic ability from talent in arts and sports.

The DfE has a web page about academically more able pupils which lists several policies that support schools in addressing their needs. However, even this list excludes some important contributors, including free schools and the Pupil Premium.

Nor does this narrative differentiate support for able underachievers and high-attainers. This latter group are defined very broadly in performance tables as those achieving above national expectations (essentially Level 3 at KS1 and Level 5 at KS2), but we cannot see what proportion attract the Pupil Premium. The 2013 tables will include the percentage of all children passing KS2 Level 6 tests, but levels disappear from 2016 and we do not yet know the shape of any subsequent measures.

For this reason we welcome today’s landmark Ofsted survey, the most extensive investigation of gifted and talented provision that Ofsted has ever undertaken. But we also ask whether it will be proactive in proposing a more coherent approach by schools and stakeholders at every level, including a pivotal role for Ofsted itself.

Free schools could help bring about such coherence. Although there is nothing to prevent primary, secondary and all-through free schools from specialising in gifted education, the current restriction on selection may be acting as a brake on this type of innovation. Where selection is permitted, at 16+, several 16-19 models are being introduced. One or two pioneers planned support for high-achieving disadvantaged learners, only to push down entry grades or baulk at priority admission for students who had formerly been eligible for free school meals. Publicity for the new Westminster-Harris project suggests it is determined not to follow suit.

The Government is seeking bids for selective, university-sponsored 16-19 maths free schools. A national network of up to a dozen institutions has been mooted, but only two projects are confirmed to date. This approach has much to commend it, provided the following:

  • The schools serve as geographical hubs, coordinating and mediating national policies so their impact is concentrated and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In maths particularly, the Government has announced a swathe of small-scale national projects that could be integrated and strengthened in this fashion.
  • The schools work in a mutually supportive national partnership and as regional centres of excellence, committed to inclusive, collaborative outreach with primary and secondary schools and the full range of other organisations active in their specialism. Undertaking such a role might be a condition of funding and help erase the fault lines created by free schools in some localities.
  • Universities’ involvement is central to institution-wide fair access strategies, by ensuring that projects are not siloed in a subject faculty. Their participation would help to unify the broader gifted education push from schools and colleges and the fair access pull from universities, strengthening our collective capacity to demonstrate faster progress against social mobility indicators.

Such a model could be extended beyond gifted education and to different subjects and phases. Lead schools might be from any sector and hold any status, while university sponsorship would be optional, but desirable. We suggest that they be named Learning Schools, to differentiate them from Teaching Schools. Indeed, they might take some pressure off Teaching Schools. They might expect to devote some 50 per cent of their capacity and resources to external support.

Learning Schools would be integral to wider efforts to improve educational quality, avoiding the worst features of top-down and bottom-up strategies alike.

Tim Dracup is a writer and consultant on gifted education and related issues. His Gifted Phoenix Blog offers objective, in-depth analysis and a determinedly global perspective.

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