Kelly Jawerth

What makes a gifted student?

At the SMH Education Summit earlier in 2024 the Education Minister of NSW, Prue Car, announced a new policy to cater for high-potential and gifted students. While well-intended, the number of schools hosting Opportunity Classes increased without changing the total number of competitive places, still only 1840. Yet, the total number of children who sat the entry tests in 2023, was around 15,300. A shift in places will make no change for those students who are missing out and cannot get the support they seek.

The announcement made for an eye-catching headline, but in terms of policy, it just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Frustratingly, there have been few changes in Gifted Policy in more than 30 years, specifically since the introduction of KLAs in 1991. Core to this problem is that gifted students fit outside the “mythical middle” that most, if not all, current educational practices attempt to cater to.  

Motherhood statements

Mantras of acceptance and diversity are motherhood statements that articulate aspirations acted on in varying degrees. An underlying culture of inertia is unhelpful in creating disruption or change to the status quo: The postcodes have changed, and cards have been shuffled, but the problem (and the deck) remains the same.

What’s policy got to do with it?

It appears that policy has little to contribute to connecting theory with practice given that we are still working with a policy and ideas that are essentially three decades old. There is an obvious disconnect between the policy messages, the reality of what students need, an ever-evolving social world, and what is happening in our classrooms. 

An additional point missed by those who have commented on Car’s announcement is the assumption that these places, no matter the postcode, are for gifted and high-potential students. This belief overlooks the performance-based culture of our education system. 

We must make considerable progress in translating good intentions into meaningful educational change.

Why is performance not the most important thing? Who are the gifted?

In this country, performance doesn’t always reflect ability. In many instances, performance reflects opportunities, much of which is afforded by private funding and unequally distributed wealth. While some gifted students will succeed in their application for government-funded opportunities, i.e. opportunity classes, many will miss out as their peers will be selected based on their performance – oftencoached and honed through parent-funded tutoring. This effectively dismisses potential and provides further opportunities for those with the funding and external provisioning to achieve academic success. 

Historically, gifted appears to be linked to diverse education principles, which are characterised by diagnoses that can act as enablers and barriers to students fulfilling their potential. Gifted education policies in NSW still refer to the Disability Discrimination Act (1992) as a way of aligning these documents with an equitable ethos of education.  Unfortunately, this source document does not mention ‘giftedness’, ‘talent’, ‘high potential’, or ‘twice-exceptionality’. Therefore, outside of students whose achievement is so significantly masked by disability, no additional provisions need to be  offered. 

Outstanding promise

Gifted students have outstanding promise to contribute to Australia’s intellectual capital and growth. Yet, they are left behind as the opportunities espoused for gifted students are, in fact, for students who perform, regardless of whether they fit the definition of gifted.  

Likewise, with the search for one definition of giftedness, there is no agreed-upon understanding of gifted education. Subjects’ syllabuses cite potential considerations for gifted and talented students. Numerous documents, such as the Gifted and Talented programs in the NSW Department of Education and several Independent schools, cite Gagne’s theory of giftedness and talent as a core model. Some of the more useful, such as the position paper to the Newman Gifted Selective Program of Sydney Catholic Schools, cite a series of observable identifiers for giftedness in children, as a starting point for investigating the capacities of individual students.  

What can be done?

To recommend another model, a reshuffling of an archaic policy, or indeed another policy change is unlikely to make a difference to the education and success of gifted students. That’s particularly true  if it is interpreted without expertise, not systematically implemented, or worse, shelved entirely. 

A system for procedures and strategies must be collaboratively developed, widely publicised, and implemented with support. 

There must also be more accessible professional learning opportunities for teachers to understand that giftedness is not an all-in-one-encompassing definition. 

Nearly half of our teachers have no experience with gifted students

Despite the extensive resources and information available in the current DET HPGE policy, 47% of teachers still report that they have no experience with gifted or high-potential students (NSW Department of Education, 2023). This demonstrates that policy alone is not the solution. Changing policy or reshuffling within a system can be ineffective, despite best intentions. 

Instead, policy needs to be coupled with adequate teacher education, and provisions and planning as part of implementation, so our best and brightest are enabled to reach their full potential and contribute to society more broadly. Recent work on the impacts of educators’ professional learning shows teachers are more motivated to address student needs once formally recognised (Sims et al., 2021; Jha, 2024). 

There are many examples of highly motivated teachers who are assisting our brightest science students well. The introduction of Science Extension in 2019 was a promising curriculum innovation giving students an authentic, open-loop experience of science as it is practised. Here, non-linear, non-coachable tasks with novel problem-solving scenarios (in mathematical concepts and differentiated instruction) have effectively extended and engaged students beyond what most thought was possible while at school (in Maths). Unfortunately, current policy has interfered with the full intention of the course. Students are once again required to sit a high-stakes exam to conform to exam-driven learning expectations. Despite this, our students have succeeded as an army of researchers, many of whom have contributed to our body of knowledge while still attending school. They have experienced firsthand that our exam-focussed system is irrelevant compared to what they have and can achieve. 

Conclusions and Next Steps

To create meaningful shifts in reform, the reform must cause ripples throughout the educational system. This includes creating aspirational goals, and transparent and visible achievement by transformation agenda, not a piecemeal approach to improving on what is already in place. 

The approach to gifted students needs to be redesigned to position the student as part of a system of support and engagement networks. The above diagram is a suggestion for what this might look like (Jawerth, 2021). This consideration catalyses a more holistic view of gifted education as it currently stands. 

Give students wings and they will fly. 

Photos of Kelly-Anne Jawerth and David Nally

Kelly-Anne Jawerth is a science specialist teacher, has held roles in syllabus development and writing and has taught in schools across Sydney. She completed her PhD in 2021 on policy development and reform for gifted and talented science education in NSW.  David Nally is an HSIE specialist teacher and has held roles as Social Sciences and Gifted and Talented Coordinator, across schools in Sydney.He is completing a PhD on Post-Truth, the impacts of its related issues (such as misinformation) on education, and how history educators can address them.