Wasted talent


 Greater careers support for gifted and talent students

I have been a self-employed careers adviser for over 20 years and I have done a lot of work with the gifted and talented (G&T) cohort in the state sector.

The term “SEN” conjures up many images, but seldom that of the most able – the G&T stream. However, they also have special needs, especially in the increasingly underfunded state sector, where they are in danger of not making the most of their innate ability. There are political issues simply in the concept of G&T and I know many teachers feel uncomfortable with identifying pupils and with any extra support being offered.

In the past, when money was more available, there was abuse of the system, with some schools wanting to maximise the G&T stream to win additional funding. I have seen G&T pupils for specialist careers work simply because they were good at food tech or sports. I have also been told by a G&T coordinator that she did not believe in any extra resources and if she had her way, the money would just go to the general school population. Why she became a G&T coordinator is a good question but, in broad terms, she has got her wish; few schools today offer anything but lip service to G&T, to the huge detriment of the most able students, who are not in leafy suburbs, where selection is by house price or church attendance.

Recognising potential

Some schools, often through sheer willpower, still run an effective G&T programme. I work with the G&T stream in a comprehensive girls school in London. The students come from a wide range of backgrounds, from recent immigrants through to city professional families.

I undertake the Morrisby aptitude tests with the students and then give an in-depth feedback interview to which parents/guardians are invited. The interview uses the test, personality and interest questionnaire results to paint scenarios for the pupils and parents, raising aspirations, and making them realise what they have the potential to achieve.

I would love to do this in more schools but to do so I would need a well-run G&T programme and an enthusiastic teacher. I would also have to be willing to give a lot of time for no financial return, as funding for G&T programmes is simply not available and corporate sponsors show little interest. Strange as it may seem, I have had a number of schools refuse my service even when I offered to just charge costs; common refrains are that it is too onerous admin wise, too complicated, or “elitist”.

We complain that not enough state school students go to Oxbridge and other top universities. Despite the percentage of students from poorer backgrounds going to university, there is a huge class bias in terms of where they go and what they study. The battle to increase participation has been won, despite fee increases; we need to concentrate on where and what is studied. The middle class go to traditional institutions, the poor to former polytechnics. The middle class do science, economics, medical sciences and technology; the poor do humanities and social sciences. To change this dynamic you need specialist careers advice from outsiders coming into school who have in-depth knowledge of the complex HE system, as well as other alternatives, such as degree apprenticeships. If the only way this can be done is by people giving their time for free, then it is not going to be a solution.

I do not expect (although I would really like) the Government, of whatever persuasion, to fund specialist careers work with G&T students but I do wish for more enlightened attitudes from corporate sponsors and a more open-minded attitude by schools themselves in recognising that they have a duty to help the SEN group called gifted and talented.

Further information

Gordon Collins runs the consultancy Careers and Education Services, based in London:

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