If you are a disadvantaged student you are statistically unlikely to be selected and named as gifted and talented. Deborah Eyre looks at how to open opportunities for disadvantaged G&T students
In the current education arena, the ‘skills agenda’ focuses on developing the intellectual capital of individual students and the ‘personalisation agenda’ provides a potential framework to enable this to occur. However, a third major education agenda is the need to reduce inequity in the system.
Children’s educational prospects reflect the disadvantages of their families: those whose parents are poor, have limited qualifications, are unemployed or have low-status jobs, who live in inadequate housing and in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, are less likely to gain good qualifications themselves at school. Even the most able children from poor backgrounds are unlikely to achieve highly. Sadly in the UK, headline figures show us moving backwards in this respect, with those born in the 1970s less socially mobile than those born in 1958.
Many colleagues are proud of the contribution that gifted education has made to raising aspirations and motivation amongst the most able from traditionally disadvantaged groups in the UK. They point to a culture change resulting from Excellence in Cities and the City Challenge programme, which stressed the possibility of high performance for all students in every school, and they mention with pride the ‘rising tide raises all ships’ effect. But many outside the field criticise G&T programmes, suggesting that they are by their very nature inequitable, and that in practice they serve as a mechanism for further advantaging the already advantaged.
There is extensive research worldwide to show that choosing a G&T cohort is by its mere nature an inequitable process with certain ethnic and social groups under-represented. In the US, children from affluent families were found to be five times more likely to enter gifted programmes than their poorer peers. In the UK, NAGTY membership in its first year (37,000) showed over-representation of middle and higher strata social groups, while the lowest strata was significantly under-represented.
However, the benefits to disadvantaged children of being selected are considerable, as the Grammar School experience in the UK showed. Recently, Maurin and McNally (2007) looking at student attainment in more academically oriented schools, found that the effects of being on an academic track are just as great for pupils receiving free school meals than for their wealthier peers. Similarly, NAGTY found that the effects of NAGTY membership were the same across the social divide (Muijs et al, 2007). Once a child was given access to suitable opportunities, and to a cohort of aspiring peers, under-achievement diminished. This suggests that if those from poorer backgrounds are given the chance to access higher level opportunities then their educational prospects are substantially improved – with some reaching the very highest levels of performance.
Sesame Street effect
If, as a disadvantaged student, you are selected and named as G&T then it can be life changing; but you are statistically unlikely to be selected. It is for this reason that many in the G&T field are so attracted by the ‘rising tide raises all ships’ approach. Here, advanced opportunities are made available to everyone in an inclusive way and everyone gains, with the most able gaining the most. While this is a comforting idea, the reality is less compelling. The actual effect of this ‘needs blind’ approach is to widen the gap. This is sometimes referred to as the Sesame Street effect. Sesame Street was devised to help educationally disadvantaged children to learn and it led to marked improvements in their performance; but middle-class children with support from their homes and nursery schools learned even more and so raced ahead faster and further.
So what contribution can G&T education make to the equity agenda? I would suggest that we need to move away from ‘selection’ versus ‘rising tide’ and towards a more mixed economy. We need an approach in which all teachers are open-minded about those capable of achieving exceptional levels of performance. We need to believe that more people can attain highly, including many more from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Our G&T policy should focus on the school’s ‘Road System of Provision’ plus the mechanisms for enabling and supporting students to achieve very highly (personalisation). This will include specific intervention for students from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds. They need a special ‘helping hand’ at every stage. This may involve activities focused on developing intellectual confidence as well as performance so that students develop self-belief. It may also involve quietly monitoring take-up of advanced opportunities and ensuring that they are not adding to inequity. Finally, we need to recognise the value of selection within the overall armoury and its ability to bestow self-belief and self-confidence. Being chosen is an external endorsement and sometimes gives the student the boost they need to become more socially mobile.