It is evident that schools are facing huge challenges in education arising from a complex network of powerful social, economic, and political influences. Yet many are providing high-quality education. In a recent research project (see references, below) the case-study schools shared common attributes which resulted in high-quality provision, not only for gifted and talented pupils but for all learners:
- high-level, caring leadership and senior management
- personalised learning that accommodates the diverse needs of all learners
- the vision that the teaching profession is about inspiring and leading young people to discover their gifts and talents, and bringing an understanding of ‘humanity' into teaching and learning exchanges.
Policy of inclusion
Although the original research sought to analyse the components of excellent provision for G&T pupils, it was soon obvious that since all schools had developed a policy of inclusion, what is considered best practice for G&T pupils actually applies to all pupils. Hence, rich and varied opportunities are available for all pupils to discover their gifts and talents through open-door invitations to engage in enriched and extended provision. All the schools provide a wide range of after-school study-support activities that accommodate a variety of interests. Plenty of unexpected gifts and talents are revealed during these activities, many of which are instigated by the pupils themselves. In addition, lesson planning includes extension activities that all learners can choose to tackle. The emphasis is on celebrating and giving equal status to all learners' potentials and achievements, and this runs right across the full spectrum of human capacities: social, emotional, spiritual, visual/spatial, mechanical/technical, physical/movement, auditory/musical, scientific, linguistic (oral and written) and mathematical.
Visionary, distributed leadership
The senior management team (SMT) are practical ‘hands-on' educators who learners see around the school on a daily basis; they can address pupils by name, knowing the background of pupils' successes and special needs. At primary level, this is obviously easier because the school populations are smaller; but at secondary level a similar effect is achieved by management teams working together closely as an interrelated unit comprising senior management, heads of year, subject leaders and teachers with special responsibilities. The schools maintain that strong communication networks enable the personalisation of learning and teaching to become a reality, and make it easier to recognise symptoms of underachievement. In addition, all pupils have a mentor (who is a teacher) or a senior ‘buddy partner' and there are regular meetings to discuss the relevance and level of challenge of learning activities.
In all the case-study schools, the pupil voice is strong and influences school decisions and issues of personal development. Pupils are encouraged to express their views, and feel they are in partnership with their teachers, so that they see themselves as an essential part of the process rather than having ‘education done to them'. Learning is personalised and carefully monitored; pupils are excited about learning, highly motivated and proud of their achievements. They perceive that teachers' expectations of their achievements are high and they respond to this positively. The major emphasis across the curriculum is placed on activities that encourage the development of problem-solving and thinking skills, self-assessment and self-monitoring, questioning, efficient recording and research skills. Careers advice is rich and developed early, with a sense of vision and entitlement.
Pupils set their own targets and monitor their own progress through self-assessment and marking each other's work. The skills of the teachers lie in assessing what information, skills and strategies the learners already have, and what further development they need to carry out their learning tasks.
Open access for parents and governors
Communication avenues with the outside world are carefully fostered and are clearly accessible. Parents/carers feel that they have easy access to the school and that they can approach any member of the senior management or member of staff; they are very much involved in school activities and are consulted and kept informed about all school policy and intended future development. They have a sense of both ownership and partnership and are proud of the school's efforts and achievements.
Importantly, governors also have a strong voice, are aware of their schools' developmental plans and practice and are active supporters. Many governors spend time in the schools during the day, working in classrooms and talking with teachers and pupils.
Posts of special responsibility
Teachers undertaking roles with special responsibilities, such as the G&T coordinator, are always included in the SMT since they have detailed knowledge of the individual pupils in their special care and are, consequently, perceived as having a critical influence in all decision-making. Some of these teachers are, indeed, young in the profession, but they are considered as key people.
All the primary schools belong to their local Primary Learning Network, and where appropriate the cluster includes the local secondary school. The intense competition that characterised so many schools several years ago has been replaced with cooperation and mutual support, and one could argue that ‘humanity' is being put back into schools, with people being considered before numbers and tables.
Assessment and monitoring
All the schools practise assessment for learning policy which necessitates systematic pre-assessment strategies, careful record-keeping, and close liaison with the learners' previous teachers; effective planning avoids repetition of skills and knowledge already mastered. Challenge is then presented through high-quality, open-ended tasks so there is always differentiated work and extension material available. By assessing performance on these tasks it is possible to set individuals even more challenging targets.
The purpose of all assessment is to show personal progression within each subject, or group of subjects, and this information is shared with pupils and parents/carers. Pupil self-assessment powerfully complements other types of assessment, and encourages students to carry personal responsibility for their progress. Teachers use both assessment for learning (formative assessment) and assessment of learning (summative assessment.) Written commentaries in pupils' books provide evidence of personalised learning through comments about possible avenues for improvement under the influence of AfL principles. The emphasis is on positive feed-forward comments that learners can use for reflection and further learning.
A pupil pro-forma for assessment and review of learning comprises a column for pupils' strengths and needs in the autumn term; a review column at the beginning of the spring term and a box to write the agreed forward targets; followed by late spring and summer reviews to consider progress and future needs. It would be difficult for any child's needs at any level to escape this thorough and expert ongoing diagnosis of needs. Staff believe that the time taken to complete these pro-forma (including discussion with the pupils) is one of the important strategies that prevents underachievement.
In the case-study schools there is great emphasis on pupil-parent-teacher relationships, with home agreements drawn up that highlight both the learners' needs and the parental responsibilities. This agreement is translated into the often many different languages within the school.
Schools using the TASC Problem-Solving Framework (see www.tascwheel.com) have developed an assessment and monitoring profile that provides qualitative as well as quantifiable outcomes: staff feel the TASC Problem-Solving Process that broadly scaffolds independent learning allows them to have greater freedom to observe pupils.
Transition and transfer
Continuity of educational experience is important. Pupil progress is carefully monitored from the baseline point of entry. Individual education plans (IEPs) and the open-ended G&T register are regularly reviewed and then transferred between the phases. This is helped by highly efficient systems of collecting, collating and analysing data on pupil progress.
There is excellent liaison between the schools at every stage of transition through detailed reports of pupils' achievements regarding in-school and out-of-school activities, examples of pupils' work, and both quantitative and qualitative comments on pupils' strengths and on areas needing support. These reports are made available to, and discussed by, all staff so that repetition of skills and knowledge mastery is avoided.
Designated staff carry responsibilities for the acquisition, security and dissemination of data. This data is maintained and updated on a weekly or two-weekly basis, and staff are expected to cooperate in keeping it active and alive. Extensive IT facilities support this network, and time is saved with an efficient communication system. Transition booklets, examples of work, induction days and computer data transfer are characteristic of all the case-study schools.
Prevention of underachievement
Differentiated provision is perceived as integral to planning: the curriculum is the result of negotiation of areas for study, and the emphasis is on students constructing knowledge and meanings for themselves, rather than absorbing set, immutable content. Planning is expected to show coherent levels of increasing complexity and is not just a selection of extra exercises for the ‘early finishers'.
Importantly, independent study and research are key characteristics of negotiated learning goals and differentiation centres on offering more cognitive challenge to develop pupils' problem-solving, questioning and higher-order thinking skills. Extra support for those who need it is carefully organised especially through teaching assistants, who are well-trained to cater for G&T pupils as well as SEN pupils. Collaborative, networked e-learning is well advanced and being constantly extended.
In essence, the schools are developing a creative curriculum overflowing with opportunities for learners to discover their gifts and talents. They have become places where children feel safe and happy and can have dreams and visions for their future. In addition, the schools have become a focus for community cohesion, drawing in parents, governors and others as partners in the education of the young. Teachers have become mentors and facilitators not only for young people's learning but for the development of their fulfilling and productive lives.
- A brief summary of this research is published by NACE (2007) in conjunction with London Gifted and Talented, entitled Raising the Achievement of Able, Gifted and Talented Pupils within an Inclusive School Framework.
- See also Wallace B et al (2009) Raising the Achievement of all Pupils Within an Inclusive Setting. London: Routledge
Belle Wallace is director of TASC International (Thinking Actively in a Social Context) and past president of NACE (National Association of Able Children in Education)