Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Everyone's got talent

Amid all the doom and gloom about university funding cuts, there is one bit of educational good news today. According to Education Guardian, the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth is to be scrapped and its funds redirected to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds get into higher education.

And about time too. For those who are not parents of school-age children, or who remain unaware of this inequitable and divisive scheme, this is how it works (or rather, how this particular parent has witnessed it working over the past few years). Each year, schools select from among their pupils those they decide have a particular 'gift' or 'talent' - whether in music, science, sport, whatever - and use the funding allocated by government under the scheme to organise special activities for them. Various attempts have been made to reduce the appearance of elitism and selection-by-the-back-door: in some cases the definition of 'gifted' has been widened to include special educational needs, and some schools (such as the one our daughter attends) have invited parents to identify their children's special 'talents'. And there's a lot of empty rhetoric to the effect that 'everyone is gifted and talented, really' (try telling that to the children whose names are not on the list).

What you end up with, inevitably, is a group of children selected on the dubious basis of teachers' subjective judgements and parental pushiness. Like the current system of secondary school 'choice' (in practice, schools choosing the pupils they want, not vice versa), it looks open and equitable, but is in fact deeply divisive, favouring the precocious over the plodding, the already well-supported and resourced over those whose 'talents' are slow in developing or in need of nurture before they become apparent.

And once you've selected your elite group, you divert previous teacher time and resources to providing them with opportunities that reinforce their 'specialness' and are, inevitably, denied to those who didn't make the cut. One day last year, my teenage son came from school and told us there had been a special seminar on applying for Oxbridge. The trouble was, he didn't get invited, since (although he's bright and does well at school), it was only for members of the gifted and talented group, of which he's not a member. I was livid. Having been a shy, late-developing teenager myself, one who would never have been noticed by anyone drawing up a list of the 'gifted and talented', and coming from a family where no one had ever been to university, I would never have made it into higher education, let alone to the Cambridge college where I ended up, if this system had pertained in my day.

The diversion of money from this wrongheaded scheme into widening access to university is one of the Brown government's rare egalitarian moves, and almost (but not quite) makes up for Peter Mandelson's Gradgrindian comments on higher education last year.


Minnie said...

Very enlightening, Martin - and can well understand your anger re your son. Sounds like yet another case of a word 'meaning just what I want it to mean, nothing more, nothing less'.
This approach might explain why the country's no longer competitive on any fronts. It's a tragedy, economically and socially, for country and individual kids concerned. Nearly everybody IS good at something useful, & education is supposed to help identify & nurture that skill or talent. What a pity that this perfectly sensible notion is now so fudged and effed up by the dictates of PC that it causes more harm than good.
Bet your son does just fine, tho' (care to open a book on it? Only joking!).

Martin said...

Thanks, Minnie for your comment. Yes, I think you're right: our son will do fine with or without these spurious labels.

Hattie - Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoy reading the blog.

Minnie said...

Re your final sentence, Martin: PM's designation as 'Business Secretary i/c higher eductation' rather gives the game away - he knows absolutely nothing about business, so it's safe to assume ...