Gifted and talented students are neglected by our schools

The great post-Gonski debate

Why have recent comments by Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham caused such a furore? Matthew Knott explains.

It's a worry that Australians fret so volubly over the fortunes of our sporting elite yet the long, steady decline in the results of our best and brightest young students barely rates a mention.

The recent Rio Olympics is a case on point. That our fabulous, intensely trained swimmers won fewer medals than expected was cause for much soul searching, including earnest questions about levels of support and the nature of elite programs for swimming's stars. At the same time, international measures of educational achievement have been tracking the performance of Australia's academically advanced students steadily down since 2000.

Of all the various groups of learners in our school systems, it is the gifted and talented – potentially the nation's intellectual and academic elite – who have suffered the largest declines in achievement during recent years.

NSW is experiencing "unprecedented" student growth, according to the government, and the state will see 164,000 more ...
NSW is experiencing "unprecedented" student growth, according to the government, and the state will see 164,000 more students in public schools by 2031. Photo: Michele Mossop

This poses many confounding questions. How is it that we are able to ensure our best athletes have the opportunity to fulfil their potential, but the academically talented children sitting in our classrooms do not? In sport, the notion that, say, backstroke specialist Mitch Larkin or cyclist Anna Meares should hang back or go easy to enable their teammates or other competitors to keep up is, of course, ludicrous. Yet, this is not so far from what we ask of our brightest students.

Such is the inconsistent, varied and, arguably, inadequate support for Australia's gifted and talented students that research suggests many gifted children do not learn anything new until midway through the school year. International measures, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), reflect such lost opportunities in maths and science outcomes for gifted and talented Australian children.

Imagine about 100,000 students in NSW schools alone – with either potential or demonstrated ability well beyond the average for their age – bored for up to half the school year, every year. The link between unstimulating school environments and underachievement, declines in wellbeing and, in some cases, school leaving is well supported.

Regular national academic snapshots such as NAPLAN tend to highlight the challenges faced by struggling learners. Teachers, out of necessity, spend much of their time assisting these learners, every one of whom has real, tangible and important learning needs that must be addressed. However, learners who need to be challenged and stretched should also be given the opportunity to learn something new every day at school. This is especially important for academically talented students from low-income backgrounds who are the least likely to have access to enrichment activities outside school.

The problems, and hence the answers, may lie in two areas.

First, there is the role of our schools' educational responsibilities that are, in part, defined by law. Obligations to students with additional or special needs are defined in fairly narrow terms of disability, not ability, and mostly via medically determined diagnoses. Such definitions link access to additional funding for either a school or an individual student to a list of qualifying conditions. Students with such needs are rightfully legally protected; schools must support their right to access education and to learn at their level of ability. This, however, leaves gifted and talented students in a grey area, when it comes to the responsibilities of schools to do more than expect them to just fit in.

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In NSW, the government's Gifted and Talented Policy aims to identify such students and ensure all schools provide them with appropriate learning experiences, primarily through differentiated instruction. In theory this is terrific. But, this is a "responsibility" not a legal obligation, and so not binding. Experience tells us that, even with the best will in the world, very busy teachers and stressed schools may be unable or unwilling to make special provisions for their most able students.

There are, of course, options that do cater especially for the gifted and talented. In NSW public schools there are Opportunity Classes (OC) in years 5 and 6 and a Selective High School network. Likewise, individual public, Catholic and independent schools have various gifted and talented classes and streams. Yet, the 1800 or so highly contested places available each year for entry mean only about  0.6 per cent of NSW primary school students are in Opportunity Classes at any time. Selective High Schools take no more than 5 per cent of all NSW high school students; many more miss out. And, the real test of existing programs and approaches are our students' results; our outcomes are uneven and trail those of similar nations.

This goes to the second critical point. In Australia, we have failed to develop a comprehensive research base into gifted and talented education programs, opportunities and their outcomes, nor has there been any concerted effort to track gifted and talented students to determine the longitudinal impact of their educational provisions. Research efforts remain largely piecemeal. Until Australia builds a clear picture of initiatives and their outcomes, policymakers and educators will remain hobbled and reliant on assumptions or on insights from quite different education systems, such as those in the US.

It may be a cliche but the starting point for solving any problem is acknowledging it. Updating legislation to include the needs of the gifted and talented in schools' legal obligations would go a long way towards that. Likewise, only a concerted, co-ordinated research effort can enable us to understand, and tackle, the issues we face. 

Dr Jennifer Jolly is a senior lecturer and GERRIC senior research fellow in the UNSW School of Education. UNSW is hosting the National Gifted Conference until Saturday.  

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