Richard Brookes, director of teaching and learning, explains why there isn’t a gifted and talented register at Tonbridge School.
One of the main strengths of independent schools is our ability to identify and promote talent in our pupils in the ways that we think are best for them, rather than what others might tell us are the best ways. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of pupils who we now describe as ‘gifted and talented’. But what exactly does this mean and why do they need or merit this treatment?
Françoys Gagné, professor of psychology at the University of Québec, says, ‘Gifted students are those whose potential is distinctly above average in one or more of the following domains of human ability: intellectual, creative, social and physical. Talented students are those whose skills are distinctly above average in one or more areas of human performance.’
In practice, schools tend to look at the pupil’s performance in one of a number of baseline tests (like SATs). If that performance is above a certain threshold, which varies from school to school, they label that pupil as G&T. Membership of that school’s ‘G&T register’ then entitles that pupil to certain opportunities beyond the norm, and the school is probed on their performance when the inspectors call.
Why we don’t do labels
At Tonbridge, we don’t have a G&T register. We recognise that pupils have gifts and talents that are not fixed and which don’t always reveal themselves in a baseline test. For others, their gifts and talents only become apparent down the line. They mature at different rates and develop interests at different times as a response to different stimuli. Instead, we believe that all pupils should receive an education that stimulates and excites them (and, naturally, which challenges them to produce the best grades).
This means delivering lessons that are rich, challenging and rewarding, sometimes teaching beyond the specification. It also means offering chances to collaborate with other pupils, older boys mentoring younger boys, and providing extension classes beyond A-level in the sixth form or undertaking a voluntary Extended Project.
Thus our G&T register is, in effect, all the boys at the school. This relies on teachers really knowing their boys, and hence how to challenge them. For some boys the challenge should be just within reach, for others it should be just out of reach. Gagné says G&T is about potential not baseline testing and without pushing at the boundaries of what a boy is capable of – or thinks he’s capable of – we can’t find the extent of that potential.
Criticisms of the gifted and talented register
The report ‘Educating the Highly Able’ produced by the Sutton Trust (July 2012) recommends, ‘the confusing and catch-all construct “gifted and talented” be abandoned’. It suggests the focus, as far as schools are concerned, should be on those pupils capable of excellence in school subjects, which the report terms ‘highly able’. This is a reassuring step in the right direction. I’m not sure I can tell you which of our boys is gifted versus which is talented, but I can spot one who is highly able.
‘Highly able’ is a concept that can be easily extended beyond the classroom. No one can doubt that the boys I saw perform in a recent Year 9 music scholars’ concert are anything other than highly able. I coached rugby to a boy in the U15D team who went on to play for the 1st XV. No baseline test (if there were such a thing for rugby) could have predicted that. We should look to give every boy an opportunity to do something extraordinary, and that opportunity will – must – vary from boy to boy.
This means that teachers have to be constantly on the ball, forever vigilant. Two examples come to mind of how we can intellectually stretch and encourage students within our supportive structure. Two of our students wrote plays that were selected for public readings in the National Theatre’s New Views playwriting competition. Their plays explored issues associated with the transition to adulthood – abuse, gender and sexuality. Within the safe and supportive environment provided by the housemaster and drama teachers, they could address some of the concerns that many teenagers share. At the same time, they stretched themselves academically beyond any exam framework.
When looking through the Oxford university prospectus, one of our lower-sixth boys spotted a mathematical inequality in the margin that intrigued him. He received support from a teacher and an academic from Lancaster University to develop a more rigorous proof of the inequality than that proposed by Euler, one of history’s great mathematicians, in the 1700s. His proof was subsequently published, with the boy as first author in The Mathematical Gazette. This student took the onus and his teachers were only too keen – and able – to provide support and encouragement on a matter that had piqued his intellectual curiosity.
But doesn’t having high expectations for all and labelling every boy as G&T put some of them under a lot of pressure? There is already the pressure to excel in exams so, if we ask them to perform beyond the specification or to excel on the sports field or in the drama studio, doesn’t that mean there is no let up? The answer is to provide pastoral support from tutors and housemasters, who encourage all boys to take part and aim high but also to keep an eye on their workload. We also strive to manage expectations, and this is just as important with the parents as it is with the boys, so that boys are realistic, or perhaps realistically optimistic, in the challenges they set themselves.
So, is G&T provision really anything more than doing what schools should be aiming to do anyway? Well, yes. There are pupils who don’t respond well (or, rather, as well as they could) to traditional teaching methods, or who are constrained by the needs of curriculum choices and the timetable. Providing for G&T pupils is everything described above but, moreover, it is about creating a culture where pupils can find and pursue the thing at which they excel.