How can you assist and support gifted and talented students without stigmatising them with a label? Deborah Eyre considers this fundamental question in gifted education

The field of gifted education is primarily concerned to ensure that those who have the potential to excel are not held back by lack of educational opportunity. Yet the question of how best to achieve this continues to perplex. This year, I have been undertaking a review of the international literature on the education of gifted and talented children over the past 50 years, and it is clear that certain dilemmas in the field remain unresolved. 

Pros and cons
First among these concerns are the pros and cons of labelling children as gifted. In democratic, liberal countries, many people feel uneasy with the idea of identifying some children as having greater academic potential than others;  partly because of the effect on the child of being identified, and partly because of the message it sends to those not in the selected group. Conversely, the evidence suggests that gifted education has had real impact only in instances where specific children are selected and nurtured. Where education has adopted the more general idea of ‘appropriate education for all’ and assumed that the needs of the gifted will be accommodated, the evidence suggests that they are neglected. The latest example of this is the ‘No Child Left Behind Policy’ in the USA.

The dilemmas around selection (identification) and self-identity are well-researched. On the one hand, identification can be a significant motivator, and affirmation from an external body can significantly raise aspirations and subsequent attainment. In the NAGTY cohort, the main beneficiaries were without doubt those from disadvantaged backgrounds who, when formally placed in a national cohort of the top 5%, went on to achieve as highly as their more affluent peers. This finding is not dissimilar to the work on selective schools, which shows that socio-economic background is not a barrier to performance once a child is selected. This effect on self-belief and self-confidence is not restricted to disadvantaged students but can apply across the board. Formal identification systems help to ensure that education benefits the most able rather than the school-smart.

The challenge for schools
Conversely, some children – especially those identified very early in life and by educational psychologists – can come to see themselves as defined by their giftedness, and this can be damaging. These children tend to see themselves as unique and special and expect life to deliver for them, rather than seeing themselves as having the potential to exploit opportunities. Here, the trajectory is often one of unfulfilled promise and frustration with a system that fails to deliver suitably bespoke opportunities. We see this in the longitudinal studies from psychologists and in reports from parents. Such children are those termed the ‘exceptionally able’ or ‘child genius’, but they are not the ones statistically most likely to become Nobel Prize winners.

These findings do present a challenge for schools, especially primary schools. Those children who show their ability very early can appear significantly out of step with their peers, especially if they are linguistically sophisticated. They need bespoke provision, but adults tend to find them fascinating and bewildering in equal measure and sometimes fail to give them the balanced diet that enables them to mature as children, yet excel as gifted. We need to do better by them. But we also need to be aware that other children in the class may turn out to be equally able in due course.

So, for those identified as gifted, the benefits can be considerable but must be carefully managed. However, a societal concern relates to those not so identified, for whom this leads to a reduction in opportunities. Given that the evidence suggests that a) some children will be late developers and b) high performance is linked to access to appropriate opportunities and training, then being left out of the cohort can be damaging. The earlier a cohort is created, the more problematic this effect becomes.

Mixed approach
From a national policy perspective, the case for cohort selection lies in the need to deploy resources effectively. If the limited resource for gifted and talented education is widely dispersed, then its impact is not going to be significant. The hard choice is between a little bit for many or a change in life-chances for some.

At the school level, these contradictory findings call for a little imagination. The best solution is a mixed approach, with some advanced opportunities made available for everyone and some being restricted to those who have already demonstrated their capacity to excel. The actual balance of the mix depends on the age of the pupils and the nature of the school. In a high-performing school most provision, even for secondary students, will be part of the overall offer. In lower-achieving schools the proportion of time devoted to nurturing those identified in the cohort may be greater. Equally, for younger children, provision will be less cohort-dependent than for older students.

The school’s approach should be explicit in confirming the school-wide offer for everyone, as well as the cohort offer. Most crucially, when children are identified it is vital they understand that being labelled ‘gifted’ is not a passport to success; it merely means ‘you can excel if you put in the effort’.