Gifted and Talented education is controversial. Most schools believe in providing equal educational opportunities to all their students and are concerned about investing more in the most able young people, but experience suggests that the brightest often fail to fulfill their potential if they are given the same learning experiences as less able classmates.
All of these questions, and many more, bubble to the surface when teachers consider how to engage and extend the top of the ability range and ensure that all pupils fulfill their potential and achieve whatever it is that they are capable of achieving.
Dr Peter Vardy has more than two decades’ experience of working with academically excellent young people – and of inspiring those whose talents and interests might once have seemed to lie outside the classroom to engage with academic study through asking the “big questions” about the nature of knowledge and why it matters in “real life”. As Vice-Principal at Heythrop College, University of London, Peter coordinated admissions procedures, including interviews and schools liaison events, as well as tutoring exceptional students and supervising PhD theses. From 2003 to 2010 Peter developed and presented an acclaimed international series of Gifted and Talented day-conferences for the brightest Year 10 & 11 students across the UK and Australasia (in conjunction with Richard Huish College). Since then he has been working internationally to provide a greater variety of quality events and workshops to extend and enrich the curriculum and encourage critical thinking skills as well as training teachers, advising schools, educational organisations and governments and speaking up for his vision of education in the media. For examples, Peter runs student events in schools from Adelaide to London, from Hong Kong to Milan and teacher conferences in cities such as Sydney, Singapore and Geneva. Peter worked with the International Baccalaureate Organisation, delivering an influential keynote address in Hanoi which contributed to the process of curriculum redesign which yielded, amongst other things, the 2015 TOK guide. Peter has also advised an LEA, a major group of Anglican Schools, an Academy chain and the Malaysian Government, has appeared on ABC and BBC radio and in print, such as in the Times Higher Education Supplement and The Tablet.
Charlotte Vardy has more than a decade of experience in teaching gifted secondary-school children. Following studies at Oxford and London and her PGCE year in Cambridge, Charlotte qualified as a teacher at the age of 20 and was soon appointed to coordinated provision for the top 5% of boys at a leading grammar school near London. Her work included preparing Oxbridge Candidates (offers increased from 9 to 21 the year she took over) as well as nurturing gifted boys still in KS3 through an innovative Independent Learning Program. Drawing on her experience as a student and student-helper with the interview process, as a young teacher she worked with Oxford University on its “Access to Oxford” scheme, helping to train teachers and mentor students from schools with no experience of supporting Oxford applications. Charlotte moved into school management at age 26, becoming Director of Studies at 28 (with responsibility for a full curriculum-redesign) and moving into international consultancy, teacher-training, student events and authorship after having children. Her recent experience includes working with the Cambridge International Examinations and the College Board in the USA to train teachers to deliver its flagship “Capstone” course, developed in conjunction with Ivy League colleges to extend the most able and equip them with the skills they need to excel at University. Having had overall responsibility for teaching and learning as well as long experience of working with, Charlotte is well-placed to understand the challenges faced by teachers, school managers and parents in providing the best education for children with particular academic needs.
We are both committed to a broader vision for education, which sees the aim of school and university as enabling young people to become fully human rather than just to achieve measurable results and become an economically effective unit! The key weaknesses of the standard UK curriculum is the lack of any real context for learning and the politicising of education, which has led to a destructive targets-culture. Divisions between subjects become impermeable walls which encourage students (and teachers) to think inside the box, ignore issues which transcend the area at hand and can’t be dealt with within a 40 minute three-part lesson. The desire to homogenize the learning experience and demonstrate impact has turned most young peoples’ classroom diet to one more akin to Mothers’ Pride rather than Sourdough.
The focus on recalling content, and the over-emphasis on assessment, has had the effect of distorting the curriculum towards what is easy to measure and away from what is important to learn – and has caused many young people to feel like education is a series of arbitrary hoops to jump through rather than the intrinsically worthwhile, transformative, life enhancing process it should be.
Our vision is to provide all young people with opportunities to consider what education should be and why the process of learning is valuable in itself, regardless of what statistical or financial results it might lead to. For the brightest students these opportunities are particularly important, as they often start to wonder about the point of it all earlier and see through flimsy rationales easily.
For us, Philosophy underpins all learning and all life – it is not just a separate subject on a timetable, but the basis on which all other subjects build and what draws knowledge of different types together so that it becomes practical, contributing to wisdom rather than mere cleverness, a fulfilled life rather than a fulfilled target.
We believe that every student should have the opportunity to consider the “big questions” about the nature of knowledge, truth and reality itself, about how to live and how to die, and that these should not be reserved to those who have chosen any particular option.
We see our student events – whether in regional centers or in individual schools – as a good first step in identifying and supporting those with academic gifts, gifts which go beyond having a retentive memory, a good work-ethic and a desire to please, gifts which are sustainable and likely to yield real drive, independence of thought and innovation. We have really high expectations and never “dumb down” the complex material we cover; our sessions are pacy and packed with ideas and questions to savour. Our extensive full-colour notes provide extension activities and further reading as well as a core of information which ensures that there is no need for any student to spend their time buried in a notebook rather than listening, thinking and discussing. We provide additional materials to teachers, encouraging them to build on the conference sessions in the classroom and enabling them to take interested, able students even further into the topics. Video-interviews from leading scholars often feature, making major thinkers accessible and familiar. Our motto is, to quote Goethe,
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
Of course, we are able to provide bespoke events and activities designed particularly for the top 5% and with the needs and interests the particular students concerned in mind. Coming into school enables us to spend quality time with individuals, providing appropriate advice and encouragement alongside the chance to contextualize learning, extend and enrich the curriculum and make real connections across it and beyond it.
“The ‘ignite’ conference was a blazing success (pardon the pun!). All of the students were fully engaged for the whole day in what were some really rather advanced ideas, and it was really very good at revealing a few otherwise hidden stars. It was a very well structured and fully engaging day.” Darren Bastyan “Ignite” G&T workshop, Trinity School, Croydon 2014
In the words of one Year 11 student who attended one of our sessions at a local Independent School,
“There is nothing quite like being awoken from a somewhat ordinary Tuesday morning by so many pivotal questions and have them linger… To use an analogy from “The Matrix” you fed us the red pill and caused us to think more seriously than we had previously – forcing us to question all that previously appeared to be straightforward, however frustrating that may be!”
We can also offer advice and teacher-training for those charged with designing and implementing policies on the Curriculum, Teaching & Learning, Extension / Enrichment, Personalized Learning, Independent Learning, University Applications and related areas. Please contact us to discuss your requirements.