I owe an update on our school's gifted and talented program.
When last I mentioned it, I was in a state of turmoil. But I was jumping to conclusions and didn't know the details.
- The policy/program was published in the school newsletter. From this I learnt that potential GAT pupils had been identified by teachers (presumably last year's teachers, as how could this year's be expected to make such a selection after one week with a new class?) The identified kids had then been taken for further testing by the GAT-trained teacher. The GAT class was to be known as the Young Achievers (to overcome connotations of superiority - my paraphrasing). Each YA program would last for 10 weeks and children who are disruptive or who underperform (!) will have to leave the program. The YA program officially has a revolving door. [Does this mean, I cynically ask myself, that a child not considered talented now will be discovered to be gifted around age 10 when all the other 'young achievers' have left to go to private schools?]
- At the first P+C meeting of the year, the principal mentioned the GAT program. A parent started asking barely-concealed critical questions. (Phew, it wasn't just me feeling critical.) Others joined in. The principal was defensive and told us that having GAT programs available is a Dept of Education policy. She spoke at length about how such programs are meant to identify those children with very high IQs who are underperforming in school. She said the gifted make up about 5% of the population. There are three YA classes in our school (grades 1-2, 3-4, 5-6), with 6-8 children in each of them.
- At a working bee of mothers the next morning, there was a discussion of the GAT program. Two of the five mothers present had children in the program. But everyone was critical of it or at least critical of the way it had been handled by the school. From this discussion I learnt that:
- The children who I saw being led away by the GAT teacher were being led off to do testing (which consisted of mind maps, among other things). Their parents had not been informed of this. (No parents were informed that teachers were seeking to identify gifted and talented pupils. Which is probably just as well!) Neither of Olle's friends made it past the testing into the YA class. His best friend told his mother that he had got it "wrong". The parents of the kids who made it into the YA class were informed about that in a two-sentence letter.
- I also learnt that some parents had had a meeting with the principal last year to complain about our school's performance in the state basic skills test. Their own children (9 year olds) had done well in the test but they felt the average was not high enough. I don't understand why it would bother them for the average to be lower than they think it should be. To me, this is a sign of affluent, ambitious parents putting pressure on the school to measure up. The younger kids of those parents have all been selected for the YA program. They will all be attending elite private high schools, regardless of how well the school does in state tests.
- The YA classes are now in action.
- The class is for 90 minutes once a week. Barely adequate, I would have thought, for stretching the brain of a truly gifted child. Which makes it look, to me, more and more like a sop to some parents.
- Eight children from Olle's grade of 50 kids are in YA. Hmm, that's about 16% of the grade. So apparently his class has triple the percentage of gifted and talented children found in the general population (if the principal's 5% figure is correct).
- Of those eight children, five have birthdays in June, July and early August, which makes them among the very oldest children in the grade. (The age year runs from July to June.) Among this group of children, parents include at least eight professionals, eg doctors, barristers. All of the children are from anglo backgrounds.
- I think you might be getting the picture: this is a group of children from privileged, well-resourced backgrounds and a disproportionate number are older by up to a year than other kids in the grade.
- My personal view is that only one of these eight children has an intelligence which is far out of ordinary range. I think the others are smart children from supportive, high achieving homes. If there is any difference in potential or talent between them and another eight bright children in the class, it is a small difference, a difference of personality, confidence, age and rate of development... They are certainly not in some altogether other league.
- I confess to being relieved that O's two pals especially his best friend, 'failed' to make it into YA. As far as I can tell, his friendship group seems largely oblivious to the fact that eight of their classmates leave the room once a week for a special lesson. If O's best friend had been in YA, Olle would have been very aware of it and it could have had a very detrimental effect on him. As it is, so far I haven't questioned Olle about what he understands about YA - I don't want to draw his attention to it.
- Although I say the kids seem largely oblivious, I don't think it can stay that way forever and obviously they have imbibed something already about who is seen as clever and who isn't. That's where I feel very annoyed with this program. I don't deny that there is a small percentage of children who have 'special needs' because of their intelligence. I don't think that 16% of O's grade has those special needs. I don't think most of that group requires or deserves a special small class to develop their mental abilities any more than my son does or any number of other children do. I think the resources which have been put into GAT would have been better spent on reducing class sizes overall or implementing more targeted teaching according to ability.
- I think it's inevitable that the existence of such a GAT program will influence some children's self esteem negatively. It's inevitable that it will help to entrench both explicit and implicit ranking according to 'intelligence'. I think it has already sewn divisiveness and anxiety among the parents. I wish they hadn't introduced it. But it's a fait accomplit. I guess my task as a parent is to try and ignore it and to continue to support my own child's gifts and talents.
PS: I forgot to make the obvious point which is that my child wasn't even identified as having GAT potential. A couple of years ago I would have been seriously upset about that. And that was probably partially behind my original agitation over this issue. But it doesn't seem to be bothering me much any more. I feel genuinely indifferent to (as well as critical of) this type of categorisation, although aware that it can have a real impact on children's lives, which is what I need to stay aware of.