Support For Gifted Students

Bored and Ignored

For many students, the return to school following the half term holidays is a bit of a chore. But not necessarily for the reasons that teachers and parents might expect. If the media is to be believed, the only concern in the education system is of those pupils who fall behind in terms of achievement. The efforts are aimed solely at improving prospects for those individuals who are currently not meeting the minimum grades needed for future success. But what about those at the other end of the spectrum?

A report published this year by the Sutton Trust suggests that the lack of support given to children who excel at primary level is resulting in many gifted individuals failing to meet their potential later on. High attaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds are especially susceptible to losing out on places at elite universities, as their academically average yet financially privileged peers overtake them. Since the demise of the national Young Gifted and Talented (YG&T) programme in 2010, there has been very little activity to replace the support that was previously offered. The YG&T scheme was established in 2002 with the aim of enhancing the educational development of students aged between 4 and 19 that had one or more abilities at a level that was significantly ahead of their year group. It offered guidance to schools in identifying such individuals and developing strategies to address various issues that this group faced. However, the current lack of support means that more gifted children are being failed, with an estimated 60,000 of these individuals in any given school year not attending university despite showing promise early on (Sutton Trust, 2008).

Academically Gifted But Financially Poor

The latest research shows a continuation in the above trend, with a study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission completed in June this year further underscoring the negative impact that a disadvantaged background has on the attainment levels of gifted students. The study followed the educational paths of disadvantaged children and found that nearly 2,200 fewer poor children are attending the top universities than would be expected had they followed the same educational trajectories throughout high school as their wealthier peers with similar levels of attainment at age 11 (Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission, 2014). Additionally, the study noted that progress is affected particularly between the ages of 11 and 16, and it is therefore crucial that policy intervention is aimed at secondary schools so that children are able to convert early attainment into continued academic success.

The specific issues were highlighted in recent study by Kell, Lubinski and Benbow (2013), which looked at the occupations, creative accomplishments, awards, and professional stature obtained by adults who were identified in childhood as possessing profound mathematical or verbal reasoning abilities. The participants were tracked for nearly three decades in an attempt to clarify the contribution they had made to society., and it was found that many of the individuals had been entrusted with the role of making critical decisions about individual and organisational welfare. Many were in leadership positions in business, law, healthcare, and various technological and scientific organisations, placed at the front line of modern culture and development, and such individuals therefore constitute a valuable human-capital resource. Yet the study raised several issues that could potentially impede a gifted student’s likelihood of success.

As Kell et al notes, young people with extraordinary talent in either mathematical or verbal reasoning profit from learning environments that offer abstract-symbolic material at a higher level and pace. The right environment will increase motivation and psychological well-being, and therefore increase the likelihood of their continued advancement and future achievements (2013, p.657). In short, atypical learning opportunities are needed for atypical abilities. Furthermore, the study suggests that non-intellectual factors such as commitment, interests, values, and personality may be just as crucial in determining where a gifted child is likely to focus their skills and to what degree.

Improving Prospects

Kell et al (2013) highlights the issue of educators automatically focusing on the less talented pupils, with the consequence that the skills of the gifted students are often wasted. There is a widely held assumption that those who are naturally skilled require less support, which research shows is not necessarily accurate. Gifted individuals may still achieve good results in this situation, but are unlikely to meet their full potential.

With this in mind, the Sutton Trust has published details of a new programme that will assist in the educational development of 400 highly able students from non-selective state schools. Sutton Scholars will offer two and three year programmes at four leading universities to high school students, giving individuals the chance to take part in regular academical seminars, skill sessions, and university visits that will support them through the first years of secondary education. The programme will also allow the students to access initiatives aimed at older students, such as a university summer school programme.

The programme is one excellent example of the type of additional support gifted students can benefit from. However, more needs to be done to improve teaching provision within schools. The Sutton Trust, along with other groups, have urged the government to incorporate a national programme in state schools, along with ring-fenced funding to offer extra support for the most able students and ensure that teachers are trained to challenge them effectively.


Photo: Allan Ajifo

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