Thursday, 31 October 2013

Gifted, Talented, Stultified

When I was in secondary school, in the Blair Years, I was a product of New Labour's focus on Gifted and Talented pupils. At the time this gave me - a working class boy whose parents' traditional slightly DailyMaily attitudes manifested in me as unblinking compliance - the chance to feel superior to those of my peers who, by whatever subjective decision-making process took place, were not judged to be bright. Gifted and Talented was almost exclusively just a social thing - we did very little of substance, just gathered together once a week. This lack of action, aside from separating 'the top' from the rest, only adds to the sense that such groups have eugenic underpinnings.

Now as a teacher, with the idea of malleable intelligence and the infamous Rosenthal and Jacobson research 'Pygmalion in the Classroom' both firmly in my head, I find G&T deeply problematic.  It implies that ability is static and as such, it cements inequalities - if 'those doing well' at a given point are 'gifted', and if 'those doing well' are overwhelmingly the most economically, socially and culturally affluent, then the G&T label merely consecrates privelege. Not only consecrates though; it also legitimates. Once 'giftedness' becomes the master trait; the child's attainment becomes seen solely as a consequence of their (alleged, co-opted) giftedness, rather than their parents' ability to pay for tuition, ability to imbue their child with fruitful cultural experience and so on. It sits uncomfortably - it disconcerts.

When recently reading into Critical Race Theory, I found an interesting reflection which prompted me to think more critically about my own practice. In order to inspire pupils in a school with a majority of black pupils, a black lawyer was invited. The motivation, typical to all aspiration-building speakers, is to emphasise that if you, children, work hard, you can also become a successful black lawyer. It is hard to argue against this? But when faced with the negligible number of black people operating at the highest levels of the legal profession - single figures - is it inspirational or disingenuous to tell a hall full of 200 black kids that with a bit of hard work, they too can be the next generation of barristers?

This is my problem with gifted and talented programmes in schools which serve areas of social exclusion and disadvantage. We live in a flagrantly unjust society and those children identified as Gifted and Talented from poor areas represent the kids with - apparently - the greatest potential. What do we do, as teachers, with their considerable talents? We push our top ten children from each disadvantaged area into one of the tiny number of places in Oxbridge allocated - with statistical consistency - to those unfortunates in low participation areas.

As educators with a heartfelt commitment to justice, by pushing kids through the hallowed institutions that represent centuries of educational aprtheid, we are perhaps just providing a few token poor kids,  a few token black kids, a few token Bangladeshis, for them to plaster all over their prospectuses to maintain the illusion that they represent complete meritocracy and fairness.

The alternative? I don't know yet, but a solid starting point would be helping our 'gifted' disadvantaged pupils to realise the cold verifiable truth that the education system is weighted against them. Show them the Sutton Trust reports. Show them the admission statistics. Equip these students, of great academic potential, with the critical consciousness and apparatus to problematise, challenge and flag up the meritocracy-that-isn't.

Perhaps this action, a break in the existing discourse on how to promote 'excellence', is necessary in order to shake up the self perpetuating cycle of privelege, for which our brightest poor pupils are expected to pedal.

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