The key to gifted education

Written by: James Croft | Published:
James Croft, director, Centre for Education Economics

Should we consider enrichment and self-directed instruction ahead of gifted education programmes and streaming if we want high-performing students to achieve their potential?

The role of targeted education programmes in stimulating higher achievement among gifted children is a hotly debated topic in education – perhaps nowhere more so than in England, where more than a decade of concerted effort to make something of “gifted and talented” education in the late 1990s and 2000s seemed only to intensify dispute about access and funding and leave us none the wiser in terms of what works.

For many, the term is synonymous with selection practices which unavoidably work to the advantage of more affluent families. It is hard to conceive of how to square these with the equity agenda and it was unsurprising that the coalition government pulled the plug on funding for gifted education. Ministers chose instead to emphasise high expectations for all in the context of more traditional methods associated with whole-class teaching.

It is important to recognise the trade-offs involved in passing over further research in this field while asking practitioners and pupils to “make do” with what’s on offer rather than court aspiration to greater stretch and challenge.

In that we know that high-performing pupils contribute disproportionally to countries’ economic growth, this neglect of gifted provision seems particularly short-sighted.

The economic case for seeking to improve provision in this area is compelling. Cross-national research has found that whereas a 10 percentage point increase in the share of pupils who reach basic skills in international tests is associated with an increase in the average per-capita annual growth rate of 0.3 percentage points, the same increase in the share of pupils performing at the high end of the spectrum raises average per-capita annual growth by 1.3 percentage points. In other words, the reward for successfully nurturing the pupils with the highest potential could be considerable indeed.

But more than that we need to ask ourselves whether we can afford to ignore it. Before long, Brexit will be decided, and how in the wider context of global trade things are going to pan out economically for us will start to become clear.

Given its well-evidenced connection with economic growth, the need for investment in human capital (and, given the nature of the challenges, especially among high performers) is likely to figure prominently. We need to get clear about what, if anything, works in selective and gifted education, and fast, and set a more positive trajectory for future policy.

Against this background, the Centre for Education Economics (CfEE) set out to review the literature in economic perspective to establish what is actually known empirically about how best to serve the needs of gifted pupils.

A key methodological consideration of this approach is to attend in particular to research that permits discussion of causal effects (i.e. experimental or quasi-experimental research).

By this yardstick, as previously mentioned, the vast majority of studies are methodologically poor. The field is overly theorised, and thus suffers from a preponderance of descriptive and best practice approaches, which are inadequate for answering the question of “what works”.

This being the case, researchers working in this area have got bogged down in problems of identification and found themselves unable to progress to the question of “who for?”.

Nevertheless our recently published review of the literature was able to draw a number of important conclusions in terms of what the trajectories of future policy research should be.

First, though it found little empirical evidence to go on, there was enough to be able to conclude that neither gifted education programmes, nor streaming, as currently carried out, on average make much difference in terms of generating higher performance among gifted children.

Second, among the empirical studies that do exist, a number coalesce in demonstrating positive effects for enrichment programmes combined with self-directed or individualised instruction.

In these studies, enrichment programmes involve curricular modification to provide exposure to increasingly complex ideas and more open-ended problem-solving, whereas individualised instruction offers greater scope for independent, discovery-based learning.

This attempt to identify what expert learners need is not incompatible with a body of evidence indicating that traditional curriculum-led approaches are on average more effective, but not especially so at the top end.

Finally, it suggested that though this type of instruction would involve some “pull-out”, it may not have to entail selective schooling, or within-school streaming – the effects of which appear mixed and to have negative consequences for equity.

The significance of this evidence-informed insight about the likely contours of the pedagogical model implied here, not previously recognised amid the general confusion in the field, should not be underestimated, albeit that it remains insufficient for drawing policy conclusions.

Intriguingly, author Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren also finds the features identified in these studies to be characteristic of the educational models implemented by a number of high-performing economies, mostly in Asia. For these reasons, there’s a strong case for further investigation.

Resolve and investment are needed if we are to release the human capital of those at the high-performing/potentially high-performing end of the spectrum in ways that don’t undermine provision for other learners.

In terms of recommendations, we put the case for a government-endowed, independent research outfit, similar to what we already have in the Education Endowment Foundation for disadvantaged children, for the purpose of funding randomised trials to investigate what works in gifted education.

If the government is committed to “letting the stars shine”, as education secretary Damian Hinds recently put it, this would seem the place to start.

What we’ve come up with isn’t a basis for a wholescale review of government policy in this area, nor a “how to” guide for practitioners, but it is a new starting point that offers the promise of a way to break the political deadlock.

  • James Croft is director of the Centre for Education Economics.

Further information

What works in gifted education? A literature review, by Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren, was published last month by the CfEE, a think-tank working to improve policy and practice in education through economic research. Download the report at


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