My Ideal School

The Problem with ‘Gifted and Talented’

It concerned me the first time I heard the phrase in education, ‘gifted and talented’.  As a teacher I am used to identifying the vulnerable groups of children in my class and ensuring my teaching and learning caters for their needs.  We have children with special educational needs to cater for, free school meal children, pupil premium children, students with English as an additional language, the list is endless.  While I understand and welcome the idea that teachers must cater for all children in their class the term, ‘gifted and talented’ has always concerned me.  So you see, we have a cohort of students in every year group and in every school who will be on the ‘gifted and talented register’ – this, believe it or not, is actually what it is called and referred to with teachers and students alike.  This name suggests that it is only this cohort of students who are in fact, gifted and/or talented in some way.  What does that mean?  That the rest of the children in that year group are neither gifted nor talented in any area?  This is ridiculous in my eyes and is something that the UK education system needs to change.

Children on this register and their parents are told they are part of this special elite cohort which can for some be beneficial but can be hugely detrimental for others.  From my experience the most fixed minded young people I teach are the students who are part of this elite group.  Why? Simple, these students are scared to fail at anything in case that means they can no longer be part of this elite group or that someone will see they actually aren’t as intelligent as once thought.  It is these students who suffer from exam stress the most because their parents, teachers and often themselves have such high expectations for them to succeed and achieve.  A student I taught last year who was part of this elite cohort achieved an outstanding 6 A*, an A and a B in her GCSE’s, yet this poor child was devastated by the B on her certificate.  That was all she could focus on rather than the amazing set of results.  Since when has a B become a negative result?

Yet, academic ability does not predict success in life so why does our education system focus so heavily on it?  Richard Branson left school at 15 after his teachers believed he lacked intelligence – he later found out he was in fact dyslexic but no-one can say his life is not a success.  Jamie Oliver can remember his special needs group at school and how he was made to feel by teachers because he wasn’t ‘naturally bright’ – as some would call it.  From year 1 at the age of just 5 UK children are labelled and boxed by their intelligence.  From as young as 5 teachers form top tables in their classrooms along with bottom tables, but children soon learn which group they belong to.  This should enable the teacher to differentiate their work easily so that the top table get the harder, more challenging work while the bottom table get extra help and support.  However, all too often this just leads to young people developing the belief that they are either intelligent or not and that they can’t do anything to change this.  Additionally they develop the belief that intelligence is the most important aspect of their development.

I believe that all of our children are both gifted and talented in their own right.  Some will be artistic, some musical, some future Olympians, some leaders, some entrepreneurs, some peacemakers yet it isn’t intelligence that will make any of them great.  Like with Richard Branson, he had other skills that enabled him to succeed – why aren’t we teaching these skills to our young people today?

My ideal school would do it differently. Rather than the gifted and talented cohort we’d have a scholars programme.  Students are placed in this programme if the excel in one area be it music, sport or maths.  Once in, however, they are told that this doesn’t mean they will remain in this programme – they have to work hard and continue to excel if they want to stay there.  Additionally, if children do improve over time and excel in one subject or another they can move into the scholars programme making it accessible to everyone.  It may be, for example, that there is a student who excels in sport and has the potential to compete on a national and maybe even international stage and despite their intelligence earns the right to be part of the scholars programme.  Students in this programme will have access to key people and establishments that can enable them to further excel in their area of expertise.  Mathew Syed, author of Bounce and Black Box Thinking said that it wasn’t just deliberate practice that enabled him to become a world champion table tennis player but people and context too.  We must create the right conditions for people to grow.  This becomes a much more attractive prospect for students and will show students that you can have key skills and abilities in lots of different areas that can enable you to succeed and thrive in life.  Students would come to learn that it is hard work and perseverance that will enable them to become a scholar – these are the skills we should be fostering in our young people. We should be showing them that they are all capable of succeeding at something and achieving great things but they need the tenacity to get there.

This is a programme I would welcome as both a teacher and a parent. To enter the scholar programme you have to work hard, show perseverance, grit, courage, commitment and have a positive ‘can do’ attitude.  These are the skills we should be teaching our children.  We should be investing in their passions and ambitions and providing the right environment for them to grow and develop.

”Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

Schools should be a place where every young person, no matter what their gift or talent, has the opportunity to flourish and find their passion.