Imagine asking Usain Bolt to slow down and wait for his competitors to catch him up in an Olympic race. This would be considered unfair, as it prevents Bolt from reaching his full potential. Yet I’m sure many of us could think of a child at school who knew all the answers, and were asked to slow down to ‘let others have a chance’. This may improve the learning environment for the less competent classmates; however it is often goes unquestioned what impact this has on the high-achiever. We wouldn’t expect Bolt to wait for others to catch up, so why should gifted students be asked to do the same?
According to the Department for Education and Skills (Mouchel, 2005), a gifted student is someone who has intellectual abilities significantly higher than peers of the same age. A student is ‘gifted’ if their abilities are in traditional academic subjects, and ‘talented’ if their abilities are within creative arts or sports.
These children, if given appropriate academic nourishment, will likely become an invaluable resource to the development of society. Therefore it seems logical that schools should focus on allowing these children to reach their potential. However, focus in schools is often on obtaining the highest percentage of A*-C grades, allowing schools to climb the league tables. The different grades within the A*-C range are usually of less concern. This potentially causes education systems to put less effort into students achieving the top grades where possible (i.e. A*). Furthermore, an article from The Guardian suggested our society is a victim of the ‘C-grade culture’. This is where the focus on boosting C/D grade students to increase the school’s overall percentage, may reduce the efforts towards gifted pupils’ success. An investigation by Ofsted (2013) highlights this, where 65% of children who were high achievers at primary school, did not achieve an A or A* in their English or Maths GCSE.
Gifted children are often not prioritised within education, leading to disengagement and underperformance if they are not challenged adequately. An example of this is imposter syndrome, where the child perceives themselves as less able than others recognise them to be. Imposter syndrome is seen in high achieving students, when they are not intellectually challenged (Brems, 1994; Gross, 2006). Despite previous initiatives to improve provisions for gifted and talented students, Ofsted reports (2009) still found that many schools, despite their efforts, were not doing enough to benefit the high achieving pupils.
When there are several high achieving students at a school, a commonly used solution is the use of ability-based sets in core subjects. This homogenous grouping style is advantageous in preventing higher-achieving pupils being held back by peers, and allows student who are struggling to get the specific support they need. However, there are those against grouping pupils, believing it causes unfair elitism for those who are gifted (Gottfredson, 1998). One must also consider talented students in non-core subjects, which are often not grouped by ability.
A more controversial solution is acceleration. This is when a child is advanced throughout the curriculum at a faster pace than their peers, by skipping years of education. According to the support organisation PEGY (2013), this method is rarely used. This is despite evidence highlighting its success, because of concern for the psychological well-being of the child. In contrast, some research suggests acceleration is the most efficient way to satisfy and challenge gifted students (Gross, 2006; APA, 2003).
Acceleration can also occur without the child having to advance an academic year group. This involves the school developing a school-specific gifted and talented programme. The students’ needs are identified and acted upon by teachers, in order to successfully challenge the group of gifted children (Ofsted, 2009). However for optimal results, perhaps these specialised programmes should be specific to the individual, not the school. Individualised education programmes are primarily used with children who have intellectual disabilities (Frontczak & Bricker, 2000), outlining their specific academic needs so they can reach their potential. Should this specialist programme not also be provided for gifted and talented children? A child with a gift for maths should be accelerated differently from a child with a talent for art, and this individualistic approach helps recognise and maximise the child’s particular strengths.
It is clear that finding an appropriate solution to suit gifted and talented pupils is a perplexing and challenging task, due to ethical issues of elitism, in addition to individual differences between students. However I personally believe these students deserve individualist support from relevant professionals in order to achieve their true potential. Therefore trying to find an equilibrium, where high-achieving students benefit without any detriment to other pupils, is something that needs to be established within the education system. As psychologists we are aware of the impact individual differences can have on academic performance. Each student is their own person, and should be able to cross the finish line at their own pace.