Until recently G&T education was piecemeal and largely ignored in Northern Ireland. David Ryan describes the start of a strategy for G&T education at Belfast’s Education and Library Board.
Being a ‘spector’
I first consciously encountered a gifted child about two years ago when I was conducting a classroom observation at a school in West Belfast. The principal had invited me to the school to seek to determine why there was a teaching and learning gap. The principal informed me that the teaching in the school was excellent, but the pupils were not learning. I had the opportunity to observe a number of classes. One class I observed was a busy environment as pupils beavered away on tasks as part of the enriched curriculum, and I was able to count around seven different activities taking place.
In the middle of this a pupil came up to me.
‘Are you a ’spector?’ I was asked in a broad Belfast accent.
‘No’, I replied, ‘I am not a ’spector.’
‘What’s ya doing then?’ he asked.
‘Just looking at what’s going on in the class.’ (I didn’t think that ‘looking for evidence of a teaching and learning gap’ would have been appropriate!)
‘Do you wanna see my work?’ he asked me.
After I had agreed to the pupil’s request and found out his name, he produced a sheet of A4 with around 20, four- to five-syllable words written on the page.
‘That’s very good,’ I commented. ‘Can you read me the words?’
The pupil then proceeded to read the words out loud. I asked him if he had copied the words from a book, and was informed that he just wrote these words down because he liked them. I gave him a few more words – which he was able to read – and then explained the meanings.
It was about that stage that it dawned on me that this young child was not expected to commence formal literacy learning for another two years. He was six years old.
I discussed the matter with the principal, and was informed that this child had arrived in school able to read and write, and that he ‘may have been taught by his mother’. What was being done for the pupil I queried, to be informed that he more or less taught himself. I thought that there was something wrong with that situation; but it sparked off a period of reading around the subject.
I took an opportunity to initiate and lead research across Belfast schools between January and April 2006. The research utilised triangulation principles: this involves researching phenomenon from a number of different perspectives to seek to identify and achieve a more accurate description than ordinarily would be possible by using a single source as reference.
The research was based on detailed questionnaires sent to schools, parents, education authority officers and identified G&T pupils. The research was carried out as funded as part of normal ‘advisory’ duties within Belfast Education and Library Board.
Some difficulty was found in soliciting the view of G&T pupils, as no database exists in Northern Ireland along the lines of the G&T register in England. In addition, schools within Northern Ireland do not record or maintain records of G&T pupils. Following discussions with the headteacher of the City of Belfast School of Music, a number of talented pupils were identified (they had all achieved Grade 8 in musical examinations with a distinction).
Broadening the research
In March 2006 I participated in an Arion Study visit to Salzburg to examine enrichment for G&T students. This provided a useful benchmark for the research. Arion is a scheme funded by the European Union and British Council and is aimed at educational leaders and managers to examine educational provision in other jurisdictions. Over the course of the week, opportunities were provided to view enrichment activities and specialist schools for a wide range of gifts and talents, including music, sports, fashion design and modern foreign languages.
Results of the research
The research identified a number of interesting features. Although in England and Wales considerable work had taken place in terms of advancing the cause of education for G&T students, the situation in Northern Ireland was piecemeal and had largely been ignored. Some evidence of activity was found – such as a branch of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). However, this branch had folded some years previously due to a lack of support. Other respondents were able to mention activities such as Saturday schools within Belfast and Londonderry.
The results of my questionnaire were surprising. A significant number of schools said that they did not have any G&T students in their school.
It also emerged that no pupil from Northern Ireland had been given the opportunity to attend the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth in England as no direct funding is made available by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland.
On a more positive note, it was also clear from the research was that there was a significant demand for work in G&T education. Examples included pupils making requests for mentoring and counselling and teachers requesting support on identification, assessment and classroom approaches to G&T education.
Through the research project, a number of interested parties including pupils, parents and teachers contacted the education authority for discussion and support as they had heard that ‘something was happening’. Although no publicity was carried out to raise the profile of the research, it appears that word got around somehow; expectations had been raised amongst interested parties.
The purpose of the research was to inform Belfast Education and Library Board as to what it should be doing within the field of G&T education. A number of recommendations were made within a number of growth scenario models – ranging from ‘do nothing’, through a ‘low-’, ‘medium-’ and ‘high support’ scenario.
The ‘low support’ scenario is one in which resources for G&T education would be placed on the authority’s website which could be pointed to when an enquiry was received. The ‘high support’ scenario included a number of recommendations including establishing a strategy group to take the G&T agenda forward: including assessment, identification and provision. Academic and strategic linkages were also recommended.
The research and recommendations seem to have acted as something of a catalyst. Following discussions with Northern Ireland’s Department of Education, it was agreed that strategy work on G&T education could be placed on the board’s resource allocation plan as a strategic objective.
Senior management approval was given by the board to establish a strategy group – which now consists of over 10 advisers and other senior staff from educational psychology and the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service (CASS).
What is significant is that requests are now being received from schools and parents for G&T support and a number of these requests are being met by offering advice and support to teachers with more able students in their classes. One of the most significant features of the support sessions is that teachers often comment that the child or young person under discussion is ‘one of a number of such pupils we have in the school’.
One of the other recommendations made through the research was to establish links between the Education and Library Board and local universities. With Queen’s University, Belfast Graduate School of Education, planning discussions are under way to establish a contributory module for the Master of Education degree in Educational Studies on ‘Educating the Gifted and Talented’. It is anticipated that this will be offered from January 2008.
Within Northern Ireland, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has also being working on a literature review of G&T materials, with a view to issuing guidance to schools in the future. Networking links have been formed between the board’s adviser for special educational needs and inclusion (me), and the council’s principal officer to jointly work in this area.
Because of the research project, one secondary school in Belfast has now formed a G&T working group, with my support, and is seeking ways in which the G&T agenda can be implemented within school as a pilot project.
Taking the G&T agenda forward
In terms of the future, it is clear that a considerable amount of work has to be done to effectively drive forward the G&T agenda. To date, the research and taking the agenda forward has been carried out without any direct funding. In order for a meaningful difference to be made, it is clear that the goodwill and enthusiasm of a limited number of educationalists will not be enough and earmarked funding will be required. It is hoped that the momentum will continue to grow within Belfast and across Northern Ireland to place G&T education firmly at the heart of Northern Ireland governmental agenda and that distinct policy may emerge.
At this stage, the organisation is in a period of capacity building to create a strategic framework for the education of G&T pupils. This will include identification and assessment strategies as well as creating professional development opportunities for teachers within the realm of awareness-raising, acceleration, enrichment and differentiation. In time, it is hoped to form a local support organisation and enable specialist support in and out of school to be developed.
No funding has as yet been identified within Northern Ireland for G&T development. However, capacity building for schools could be developed if schools in England and Wales were willing to contact us with a view to establishing professional development and support networks.