Illustration: Matt Golding.
Last year I was one of a group of parents giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry. Parents told of their children's pain: of the almost inevitable bullying; of disengagement with school; of a six-year-old with depression and of pre-teens with suicidal thoughts. They told of being disbelieved and of hitting brick walls in the education system. They told of their delight in finding a welcoming environment where their child was ''not the only one''.
They were talking about gifted children.
In the past week the Victorian government gave its response to the parliamentary inquiry into the education of gifted and talented children, that is the 5-10 per cent of the student population that are cognitively gifted. Children who read at four or three or even two years old. Children who do Grade 6 maths in Grade 2. Children who program in Visual Basic at seven. For them, and their parents, it can seem like anything but a gift.
According to one of the parents, ''There is still the myth that if you have got a gifted child, you should be happy and you have not got any problems. There is not the understanding that they are at the other end of the normal curve and they need as much help as children at the other end.''
Parents find a system that is based on age, not ability; lack of teacher education on gifted students; and a suspicion of anything that could be labelled as elitism. It's a system that pushes them to advocate change.
According to one parent, ''What I have experienced in the education system to date is that anything I want done I have to push, and I have to volunteer … I want them to be able to tell me, 'This is what we can do'.''
The evidence to the parliamentary inquiry suggests that many schools find it difficult to respond to the needs of gifted children. Of the 116 submissions, the hardest to read are those written by children. For example, for eight-year-old Ruby, ''Being me is hard'': ''I find school boring because I already know most things that are meant to be taught … I want to learn, but I hardly ever get to.''
This makes a sad contrast with some of the submissions from teachers and principals. The Victorian Independent Education Union refers to the very concept of ''gifted and talented'' in disbelieving quotation marks throughout. The Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals is suspicious of acceleration and asserts (with no evidence) that ''selective schools and programs for gifted students may be beneficial for the individual to some limited extent but are certainly detrimental to the education system as a whole''. These views contrast strongly with the submissions of their respective parent groups: according to the Victorian Catholic Schools Parent Body ''all children should be provided the opportunities in their school environment to fulfil their potential. This applies as much to those identified as gifted and talented as those with special needs and the vast majority that are neither.''
When it was my turn to give evidence I suggested the simple tests I use when assessing claims made about gifted education: would you say the same thing about children with disabilities? Or about children who are gifted at sport? (Sport is a great touchstone because it's an area where Australians find exceptional achievement unproblematic.)
Would you tell the parents of a profoundly disabled child that ''all children have disabilities'' so that they shouldn't expect any special treatment? This happens with gifted kids.
Would you tell a young Nathan Buckley to kick only 10 metres when he could kick 20 metres because ''that's what all the other kids can do''? This happens with gifted kids.
Would you think it was acceptable to sacrifice the welfare of children with disabilities if contact with them would help average kids? This is an argument used to campaign against academically selective schools.
The parents of gifted students just want what all parents want for their children: the opportunity for their children to learn and develop through schooling that stimulates them. What makes these parents pushy is their view that gifted children's needs are as valid as those of any other students.
The government response to the parliamentary inquiry last week accepted all but two of its recommendations. Ones that got the nod are model school policies on gifted education, identification tool kits and guidelines on acceleration and early school entry. A proposal for an online ''virtual school'' for gifted students got in-principle support. The two that weren't accepted were setting up a special gifted education unit within the department and hiring a gifted education adviser. The response argued that both of these are dealt with by whole-of-system curriculum design. Parents will worry that without a dedicated focus, gifted children will be forgotten - and again they will have to push.
Parents giving evidence to the inquiry stressed that both their advocacy and the expertise they'd built were not something they had wished but had felt pushed into. According to one, ''As a parent of gifted children, I would feel supported if my school knew what it was dealing with when it said, 'You have a gifted child', and if it knew that, it took the lead and said, 'Don't worry; we have dealt with this before. We are educated in this. We are up to date and we know what to do. You don't worry about it; you worry about parenting your gifted children. We will manage the educational side of things.' ''
Despite all the good work of the inquiry, without substantial changes in attitudes this gift may be a while coming.
Melissa Conley Tyler is the mother of two gifted children and the national executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.