Jo McShane, South Tyneside’s gifted and talented and Aimhigher manager explains why raising the aspirations of gifted students is a key part of her work.

‘He who finds diamonds must grapple in the mud and mire because diamonds are not polished stones, they are made.’
Henry B Wilson

I do not wish to know anything about Henry B Wilson although Henry B has inadvertently provided me with this battle cry. When searching for some thought-provoking mutterings for a presentation, I came across these inspirational utterings. And now I am doomed to learn no more about the man, lest I find myself disappointed. Perhaps you see my dilemma.

I would argue that working with young people is about finding diamonds and that the process is exactly as dear Henry described. The work of the gifted and talented strand is essentially about discovering potential and developing systems and support to enable young people to shine. The mud and mire bit is self-explanatory in that the task isn’t easy. In my title, I refer also to the nurturing of dreams, because I would, much to the dismay of Miss Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, argue that merely polishing up diamonds you already have is never enough – the search is on to uncover those rough diamonds.

I am always delighted when a young person suddenly discovers that the scope of their potential is higher and wider than they had realised. To see that light switch on is priceless. But is knowing your worth and reaching your potential enough for the G&T student? Unfortunately, for every diamond we dig up, another falls back into the muddy mire. The lives of these young people are far more complex than we can imagine, and their innate ability can be stunted by: their peers, local community, family or even their ability itself. So many young people have forgotten how to dream and to aspire, or worse, never known how to dream.

Dreaming and inspiring
When teaching meditation to classes, I used to suggest that a person’s imagination is one of their greatest gifts. You can probably see the looks of shock and utter disbelief on their faces as any speck of credibility I might have had disappeared in a flash. Perhaps our young people are encouraged to feel that imagination and dreams are things you put in a toy box and send off to a jumble sale. Dreaming is difficult when you have faced so many disappointments in life, or the unemployment in your family spans four generations.

To use the words of Professor Joan Freeman, we cannot expect that gifted children will simply ‘float to the top of the milk like cream’. We must also realise that support structures that promote their attainment are not the end of the race.

Aimhigher has been developed to raise the aspirations and progression to higher education from those students of under-represented groups and non-traditional backgrounds. It is a key vehicle in ensuring that when it comes to the goals, targets and dreams and aspirations of the gifted and talented student, nothing is taken for granted. Social disadvantage and the risk of disaffection are just two of the identifiers used to target young people for activity within Aimhigher areas.

Dreaming is difficult when you have faced so many disappointments in life, or the unemployment in your family spans four generations

Disaffected gifted
If you are reading this article, then you clearly have an interest in G&T issues. If you have an interest in G&T issues, then you may have come across a terrifying and unpredictable creature, who we will call the ‘disaffected gifted’. In my experience, such young people are the most challenging group to work with.

I cannot count the number of occasions when someone has responded to my job title by quipping, ‘So you get all the nice keen ones then?’ (to which I have replied, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong impression, I work in a cocktail bar’). What makes the disaffected gifted so difficult to work with is that they can run rings around me intellectually and seem to come up with a new cloud for every silver lining I could ever present to them; especially those who do the ‘disaffected’ bit with style. They are the envy of their classmates in that they can often take a back seat and still manage to achieve reasonable grades.

The disaffected gifted can be the product of bullying or peer pressure or even high parent and teacher expectations, having to mould themselves into some acceptable form which almost seeks forgiveness for their greedy portion of brain power.

Although they often openly refuse our help, we must never, ever give up. There is a limit to the amount of tests and assessments they can ‘walk’ and the day might come when their level of skill does not match the academic rigour of their studies. Renzulli’s ‘three ring’ model of giftedness is an especially useful weapon in the fight against disaffection in its assertion that brainpower (‘ability’) simply isn’t enough. Without ‘creativity’ and, importantly, ‘task-commitment’, gifted individuals are at risk of underachievement.

In targeting provision, there is a fine line to be trodden between coaching and patronising (and you couldn’t pick a worse person to patronise!). The secret of teasing them along the path of goals, aspirations and dreams may be to adopt a slightly aloof manner while dropping cryptic messages into their lap. It is vital for them to see themselves as the engineers of their own dreams.

Although one-off ‘big-bang’ events and interventions can be fun and engaging, their benefits are short lived unless something else happens to pick them up, spin them out and convert them into real fodder for aspirations

The case of ‘Sam’
‘Sam’ was one of the most gifted individuals I have ever met. He was a fascinating character who possessed a fiery, almost angry sense of curiosity and a razor-like intellect that could terrify even the most seasoned teacher. Sam would toy with teachers as a cat toys with a wine cork. Despite his slightly quirky dress sense and mannerisms, Sam gained the respect of both the lads and lasses in his class.

The problem for Sam was that high-level thinking was going on at great speed in his head but he couldn’t be bothered to stop and spell it out.

This posed a particular problem during the completion of his UCAS application, which he issued in the form of a gnarled and dog-eared piece of scrawl. Sam flatly refused to fill out the required course codes (‘meagre work for mindless bureaucrats’) and made it his business to refuse to jump through the expected hoops on the road to academia (‘they should take me as I am’).

In short, Sam was bored with life and could see little promise in the pursuit of further studies. Having progressed successfully without ever having to apply himself to anything, he could not see beyond his indolence and sheer fatigue with it all. In line with the old adage about horses and water, Sam did eventually secure a place at a reputable university that he flatly refused to take up. His family situation was extremely difficult and he was not offered any support or open encouragement from home. The last time I saw him, he was trying to flog me a second-hand cooker.

I have Sam to thank for my interest in the gifted and talented and Aimhigher strands. In addition to Henry B Wilson, it is Sam who pushes me on and Sam who has ensured that what I do has seeped deep into my bones.

A silver lining The task of nurturing Sam’s dreams was a challenging one. I must admit that on the train line of emotional responses, outrage was my first point of call. Followed by disappointment, pity and anger. It was only when I departed the train at Apathy that I received an inspirationally written, neatly folded application form (complete with course codes) with a note asking for my ‘humble’ opinion.

Don’t ask me why, but when he realised that he could not extract any further emotional response, he started to ‘play ball’. I often reflect on how sad it was that school had ended during the 14 or so most important weeks of Sam’s young life from the end of exams to the start of university. Would the outcome have changed if Sam had been schooled and supported all the way through to freshers’ week?

Conclusion Looking back at those challenging yet formative experiences, I have come to realise that attempts to raise Sam’s aspirations came far too late. By the age of 17 he was weary, weathered and cynical. The head he carried on his shoulders was an old and furrow-browed one.

Had Sam benefited from gifted and talented and Aimhigher interventions, he may have received coaching, mentoring and provision throughout his school career. Dialogue with his parents may have taken place to tune their awareness to fit the needs and aspirations of this awkwardly smart lad of theirs. Sam might have benefited from a series of developmental and progressive aspirational activities offered by higher education institutions that would have enabled him to pilot and shape his own dreams for the future, with a little gentle and perhaps covert guidance. Sam might have joined NAGTY and linked up with like-minded individuals online and in the flesh, because as David Camplin notes, the existence of the gifted child can be a lonely one.

Although I do not feel I can predict what direction Sam would have taken with such support, I would lay my last penny on it being something other than a peddlar of used white goods.

So what can and should to be done protect our gifted disaffected gems from the mud and mire? To realise they exist is the first step and to see the tremendous potential that lurks behind their somewhat spiked and icy veneer. I have already used the words ‘progressive’ and ‘developmental’ and I cannot overstate the importance of such an approach. The climate of a school must be adaptive enough to deal with their needs in a quite distinct way and gentle, non-invasive coaching is a must from the earliest age possible. Although one-off ‘big-bang’ events and interventions can be fun and engaging, their benefits are short lived unless something else happens to pick them up, spin them out and convert them into real fodder for aspirations.

The diamond industry we need to create is both exciting and multi-faceted. We need to pick up our tools in a collaborative way and involve the skills and expertise of a number of key players, from teachers and mentors to Connexions, universities and student/peer coaches who should form a series of nets between the polishing phase and the muddy mire. This is perhaps the only way that we can ensure that diamonds we unearth really are forever.

Jo McShane has been teaching since 1995 and has worked as a school G&T and Aimhigher coordinator and cluster coordinator since 2001. She has been in her current role since February 2003.

Aimhigher The Department for Education and Skills’ Aimhigher campaign encourages young people to think about the benefits and opportunities of higher education (HE), especially young people from families with no tradition of higher education.