Press Release: December 2017
Australians are blessed to live in a democratic society. We generally have access to options, choices, rights and freedom of speech. In a recent article by Masako Fukui, published in the ABC News (27 November 2017), a Sydney mother had the opportunity to discuss her choices in relation to accessing a NSW selective school education for her children. I applaud this mother for hi-lighting the challenges that children of high intellect have in accessing this important platform available to some in our state education system.
Gifted children, possessing a natural aptitude in the top 10% of their age peers (as defined by the current NSW Department of Education Gifted and Talented Policy), have no guarantee of success in performance-oriented exams, which test not only raw ability but also knowledge derived from prescribed curriculum. Despite their cognitive depth and innate ability, gifted children competing against highly-tutored peers to gain a place in the selective schools’ program can be unsuccessful.
In addition, one would only need to consider some basic statistics to conclude that there are far fewer places available for students in NSW selective schools than there are gifted children at high school level in our state. In 2016, there were 50,586 students enrolled in Year 7 in NSW Public Schools. In the same year, 4,215 positions for selective school placement were available to this cohort. Considering the potential number of Year 7 students enrolled in Independent and Catholic schools, home-schooled students and students undertaking alternative educational pathways, we must conclude that the NSW Department of Education simply do not have the number of positions equal to the number of gifted students (defined as the top 10% of same-age peers).
Whilst one may decry the mismatch of figures, debate the challenges of the current system, or call for an inquiry into equality of access to selective schooling, there are three truths that remain. 1. Not all gifted students thrive on the same educational pathway. 2. It is essential that intellectually gifted children have the opportunity to engage with like minds. 3. Gifted children have a right to access rigorous and relevant learning experiences each and every day.
Not all gifted students thrive on the same educational pathway
Considering the diversity of individual needs, it is essential that we maintain and a variety of options for our students. Despite the best intentions of our professional, committed educators, it is not always possible for the needs of every student to be met through differentiation within the regular mixed-ability classroom. A gifted student needs to have the opportunity to access one of the many types of accelerated learning paths in order to receive the level and pace of instruction that is right for them. For some students, accessing one of the 50-plus NSW fully- or partially-selective schools provides an educational pathway that meets their learning needs. We need to ensure that these pathways are open for our academically gifted students, just as we expect pathways to be open for our gifted athletes and gifted musicians, for example. It would be unreasonable to envisage that our Commonwealth Games hopefuls should train in ‘comprehensive’ sports clubs. In fact, these ‘comprehensive’ local sports clubs engage team grading across their age groups, providing opportunities for students of all levels to have their ability and development level catered for. The clubs provide athletically gifted children with instruction based on readiness-to-learn, offering multiple pathways to thrive. Why should we offer any less to our intellectually gifted students?
It is essential that intellectually gifted children have the opportunity to engage with like minds
Having the opportunity to be accepted and understood by peers is essential to the development of the whole child. For some gifted children, functioning at a cognitive level beyond their age peers can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem. Selective high schools are one setting where students can engage with like minds and do not feel compelled to hide their ability in order to ‘fit in’ or have friends. Indeed, ‘Selective high schools cater for the specific needs of high achieving gifted students who may otherwise be without sufficient classmates at their own academic and social level’. Because of the number of locations of our selective high schools (including the virtual selective high school, Aurora College), some students have the opportunity to engage and learn alongside like minds – opportunities not previously afforded to them in their regional or rural communities. In these communities, gender, socio-economic status, geographical location – or racial origin for that matter – should not hinder access to intellectual peers.
Gifted children have a right to access rigorous and relevant learning experiences each and every day.
In 2001, the Australian Senate Committee of the education of gifted and talented students identified gifted students as the most educationally disadvantaged students in this country: ‘All types of interest groups agree that there is a problem with education of gifted children. These children have special needs in the education system; for many their needs are not being met; and many suffer underachievement, boredom, frustration and psychological distress as a result’. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) notes in its student diversity literature that ‘Gifted and talented students are entitled to rigorous, relevant and engaging learning opportunities drawn from the Australian Curriculum and aligned with their individual learning needs, strengths, interests and goals’. If we offer only a one-size-fits-all comprehensive schooling approach, we risk not providing opportunities for all children to develop their individual talents and learning experiences. In fact, such an educational system would fall outside the aspirational pronouncements of the Senate Committee and the foundations of our Australian Curriculum.
Extensive Research in educational psychology has demonstrated the relationship between four factors and achievement. First and foremost, students find value in their school experience. To succeed, children must find school meaningful. Motivated students enjoy what they are doing or believe that what they are doing will produce beneficial outcomes. Secondly, students need to believe they have the skills to be successful. Thirdly, students must trust their environment and expect they can succeed in it. Finally, it is pertinent that students develop self-regulation through setting realistic goals and implements appropriate strategies to successfully complete those goals. For some of the 79,000 gifted students in NSW, developing their needs as a whole child and attaining a level of achievement can occur in their local comprehensive education setting. But what of the children who are not “…in a very supportive family environment” and who do have “parents who are well educated and well connected"? For some gifted students, such as the Sydney mother featured in this article, it is essential to also have the opportunity to "thoroughly enjoy… years spent at a selective high school."
Whilst the composition of some selective schools in the Sydney area may lead us to assume that one or other racial group is over-represented, it would be interesting to know if that assumption holds true elsewhere in the state, and if that assertion could be substantiated with empirical evidence.
Equality, opportunity and inclusion are not about ensuring that each student has access to exactly the same type of education, but that each student has access to what they need in order to thrive and flourish in our education system.
Melinda is the President of GFSG Inc., the NSW state gifted association and Vice-President of the AAEGT, the Australian Association for the Education of the Gifted and Talented.