Liz Bentley-Pattison teaches Geography in a sixth form college in Surrey and has worked in a variety of settings. Her particular interests are differentiation, formative assessment and trying to balance career ambitions with two young children.
Labour recently published a proposal to establish an independently administered fund to advise teachers on the treatment of the most talented children. I’ve read some impassioned responses to the proposal and it is clear that the whole issue of ‘Gifted and Talented’ divides opinion in a way that supporting lower ability learners just doesn’t.
I’m a Gifted and Talented Co-ordinator in a sixth form college with an average GCSE score of 5.4. We focus much of our efforts on low achievers. We don’t receive Pupil Premium payments and have seen funding cut under the current government and yet we have come top this year in Surrey sixth forms for value added at A level. I’m not surprised. Every department runs workshops and tutorials most lunchtimes and after college, we run a full Easter revision programme and have regular meetings with ‘at risk’ students and their parents. Contrary to what has been in the media in recent weeks, my experience is that we don’t do enough for the other end of the ability scale: the high achievers.
With this in mind, as the recently appointed Target A* (Gifted and Talented) Co-ordinator, I ran the gauntlet of deciding who should be on the register and who shouldn’t. In the end I settled on the top 3% having carried out data analysis of students who had been selected in previous years and tracked their A2 results and university applications. They had almost all gone on to Russell Group universities and as my remit is to increase the proportion of students taking this path into HE, this is what I decided was what ‘success’ looked like.
Is going to a Russell Group university an indicator of success? It depends on what you consider success. My hope is to raise students’ aspirations and get them to see that getting into Oxford or Durham is an achievable aim. Whether they choose to apply is up to them but I want them to see that they’re just as capable of getting in as ‘posh kids’, as they put it. I don’t see my job as fostering elitism but as building confidence and engaging students with ideas and skills outside of their A level subjects. I sincerely believe in social mobility through education, but I think that this comes from a much broader source than the Gifted and Talented register.
I don’t have a budget so have made use of the wealth of free resources online (everything from Radio 4 podcasts to the Oxford University TSA), have taken advantage of Outreach Officers at universities, and have invited ex-students to come back to talk about university applications and careers. I have also used the students themselves as rich sources of discussion and debate. They give mini lectures to each other and set the agenda for our meetings. In addition, I have set up a CPD group amongst colleagues and we develop approaches to stretching more able students. This applies to all students in college, not just those on the G&T register.
How will Labour’s proposed fund benefit me and my students? I simply cannot see how more bureaucracy will help. When I first started in my G&T role, I found it hard to find creditable research or CPD on the topic and I’m not convinced that another National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth or other top-down initiative will help much either. A Labour government can set up a new fund to advise teachers and establish a new evidence base on how to encourage talented children but who will provide that advice or establish the evidence? Organisations such as NACE and Potential Plus UK do little more than massage parents’ egos and I am yet to come across an ‘expert’ who works in a non-selective school.
Classroom teachers know how to encourage talented children, they just don’t have the time to do it. We need time to plan differentiated lessons, to make links with schools and HE institutions, to organise mentor programmes, to read educational research, to carry out our own classroom research. External CPD is extortionately expensive and, in many cases, poor value for money. We need to be supported to take charge of our own CPD through networking with other G&T co-ordinators, Teachmeets, researchED conferences or teacher-led twilight sessions. This is where we can share ideas and improve practice supporting our most able students.