The REAL Project (Realising Equality and Achievement for Learners) has transformed opportunities for G&T students in black/minority ethnic (BME) communities and those who speak English as an additional language (EAL)

Many gifted and talented students live in black/ minority ethnic (BME) communities and/or speak English as an additional language (EAL), but such students are traditionally under-represented in G&T cohorts. The REAL (Realising Equality and Achievement for Learners) Project is the first national project specifically working to improve the overall quality of gifted and talented education for BME and EAL students. It was set up in 2006 by London Gifted & Talented (LGT), the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), London Challenge, the London local authorities of Haringey, Hounslow and Islington, and the Black Country Children’s Services Improvement Partnership (BCCSIP) incorporating the local authorities of Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

The partnership originally consisted of 31 core schools and six local authorities (LAs). Now, at the end of year two, this has expanded to incorporate more than 400 schools and 100 LAs nationally.

The REAL approach has been to develop positive models that are based on the simple premise that all learners are entitled to have their gifts and talents identified, recognised and met, through providing a range of challenging and supportive learning opportunities.

‘By securing a higher quality of support for gifted and talented BME/EAL learners – especially those who may be at risk of underachieving – the gap between the attainment of these gifted and talented learners and others is being narrowed.’

– Ian Warwick, senior director, LGT

Identifying the needs
We began by asking how the identification and provision for BME and EAL students could be made more equitable. What would improve the capacities of LAs and schools to address the distinct needs of BME and EAL students as actual or potential members of the gifted and talented population? Strategies were needed to:

  • develop inclusive gifted and talented programmes, in line with the Every Child Matters agenda
  • develop existing data systems to track progress
  • enhance school self-evaluation, using gifted and talented quality standards so that it can become the core business for all teams
  • develop an understanding of identification and access issues and how to address them
  • support advanced learners once their learning needs have been identified and understood
  • engage with the underachieving groups and those at risk of underachievement
  • engage with students, parents and communities to enrich the gifted and talented programme
  • clarify and strengthen the role of EAL and BME specialists and their contribution to gifted and talented strategies so that all staff can be alert to students’ needs
  • provide LAs with the means to support their schools and, where appropriate, to challenge them.

Partnerships and working practices
In the two years that the REAL project has been running, it has enabled the schools and local authorities involved to transform the way they address the issues surrounding BME and EAL achievement. All of the project ideas, materials and resources made available by the REAL toolkit have grown out of actual school and LA-based initiatives. And all the projects were conceived as responses to locally identified issues associated with the development of gifted and talented-oriented provision for BME and EAL students.

‘The REAL Project has proved to be an effective means of raising the whole issue of underachievement in a very positive way, strengthening the partnership between the LA and schools. The work is already a fundamental success because its initiation has highlighted a need, especially in terms of making provision for international new arrivals that are potentially gifted and talented.’

– Mark Story, Wolverhampton primary project coordinator, BCCSIP

Those LAs that are already ‘ahead of the game’ can support others in improving their provision for this cohort of students by developing a bank of web-based guidance, tools, resources and multi-media training materials to enable schools and LAs to adopt and adapt interesting practice for their own use.

’The REAL Project has required us to work more effectively across a wide range of LA and school teams to design specific interventions and pilot new practice: G&T coordinators and teachers working with EAL specialists, data managers, learning mentors and parents. As a result we developed our practice and provision and have also added significant capacity to our work with gifted and talented students, their teachers and parents.’

– Stefani Shedden, Hounslow G&T Coordinator 

The foundations of the REAL Project have been the sharing of ideas, resources and expertise across schools and LAs to enable schools and LAs to provide stretch and challenge – not just support – for all gifted and talented learners.

‘Our involvement has resulted in much better representation of BME/EAL students in gifted and talented cohorts in the schools taking part…. The efforts of the different teams have created an impetus, which has significant potential for realising the central focus of improving the quality of education for the thousands of gifted and talented students throughout the Black Country.’

– Trevor Neat, REAL coordinator, BCCSIP

The Project Focus: ID and monitoring
If schools are to achieve exemplary level in the Institutional Quality Standards, then their gifted and talented cohorts need to be fully representative of the school population. But how can we assess newly arrived students who may have little or no experience of schooling in English?

The REAL website offers practical strategies to assist schools in this process. We have produced the initial assessment process, a series of procedures and materials that can be used by schools to ensure appropriate assessment of potential and targeted support for newly arrived students.

‘We got involved with The REAL Project to look at the sorts of things we could do to pick out gifted and talented new arrivals quickly, as the whole assessment procedure had been very laborious and time-consuming. Our experience has been that whereas previously it might take a minimum of two years for students to be added to the gifted and talented register, through this new route they are likely to be on it after eight weeks.’

– Manny Vazquez, joint head, Hounslow Language Service

Teaching and learning strategies
Advanced learners of English often need specific support so that they can access challenging learning opportunities. The REAL Project is working very much from the premise that much of this support can be delivered within everyday classroom learning and that, where temporary withdrawal from the class is used, it is used explicitly in support of high achievement. Teachers often need to help advanced learners to understand how the learning of language relates to learning in general, and both teachers and students need a greater realisation of how an explicit focus on language development and the acquisition of cultural capital can impact on achievement.

‘Academic vocabulary could easily be a barrier to students who could otherwise really fly. Being proactive about this kind of vocabulary can speed up the rate of acquisition that EAL and BME students in particular can achieve.’

– Matt Cowing, science teacher, Hounslow Manor School

The REAL Project peer mentoring projects are a positive and proactive intervention to support high achievement, not a response to failure. They aim to develop a better understanding of the academic, aspirational and pastoral needs of students and foster a supportive community of self-sufficient, informed and engaged, high-achieving young people. The core ideas and models are not in themselves revolutionary, but the blend of training, guidance and support used in the programmes has enabled a depth in the mentoring relationships, which underpins their success.

‘The mentoring project is a good example of why you need to listen to your students. There were not enough students of African Caribbean heritage getting five A* to C grades or higher grades at GCSE, but some were. So we talked to the successful ones and asked what worked for them. What came back was that what they really wanted was to talk to people like themselves who’d been successful one or two years earlier.’

– Graham Smith, head of achievement and diversity, Cambridge Education @ Islington

Parents and communities
Outside of schools – ie, in the general population – there is often a lack of clarity in the understanding of what gifted and talented education actually is. So it is hardly surprising that this is even less clear among members of the school community who are from BME and/or EAL communities.
Across the REAL partnership we have identified a number of variations in community and cultural attitudes and conceptualisations of giftedness; and, working with parents and communities, have tried to establish a shared and accessible understanding. Where we have worked with parents to develop strategies to enable them to engage with their child’s learning, and applied positive assumptions, the results have been profound.

‘The notion of the gifted and talented student is not one that easily crosses cultural boundaries. For some communities it can be a threatening idea – they are already marked out in various obvious ways, and then someone comes along and says ‘here is another label we want to attach to your child’. But we want to draw people in, not push people away by using terminology that they find a bit frightening. It’s a way of saying “this will really help. This will mean that your child is able to make real choices about their future. And if they can make it to Oxford, we’re going to get them there”.’

– Graham Smith, head of achievement and diversity, Cambridge Education @ Islington

Where next?
Many of the materials and approaches developed in the course of the REAL project have been trialled by teachers and LA teams working in contexts outside the immediate educational environments in which they were originally conceptualised. These materials and approaches have benefited greatly from the feedback generated from these iterative processes. We hope that more LAs and schools will seek to engage with not just the resources on the website, but with the project itself.

Ian Warwick is senior director of LGT