Speech: Delivering on the promise of potential
World Council for Gifted and Talented Children Biennial Conference
University of New South Wales, 21 July 2017
I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet. I also pay my respects to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people here today.
NSW public education has a long history of promoting academic excellence and creating opportunities for gifted students, regardless of their background.
Our specialist school system for gifted and talented students is internationally regarded as a model of best practice and per capita one of the most intensive models in OECD countries.
These schools and classes cater for gifted and talented students who have high academic ability, matched by exceptional classroom performance. They provide intellectual and academic challenge through enrichment, extension and curriculum differentiation and group together gifted and talented students who may otherwise be isolated from a suitable peer group.
This has shaped the future of many prominent high achievers among our alumni who are proud graduates of public selective schools and have excelled in law, medicine, science, politics, sport, creative and performing arts.
We count among our alumni prime ministers and premiers, Nobel laureates, Olympians and many other outstanding Australians. Even the occasional underworld figure – although I was recently at Fort Street High and I didn't see Abe Saffron's name on the honour boards.
Our system of selective schools and opportunity classes is part of the NSW Department of Education's commitment that all students have the opportunity to work towards their potential through schools, curriculum and teaching that meets their needs.
The New South Wales Education Act of 1990, the Act of Parliament that outlines the provision of education in our state, makes clear that "every person concerned… is to have regard to… assisting each child to achieve his or her educational potential" as well as the "provision of opportunities to children with special abilities".
Still we face the challenge – like all education systems – of preparing young minds to meet the uncertainties, trials and rapid change of the 21st century. We are also attempting to arrest the national trend of a dip in performance among our highest achievers.
Our gifted and talented education policy is currently under review and I will talk later about some of our new directions. The review is informed by an analysis of student achievement data, a review of international and national research and an extensive consultation process.
Our system of specialist schools
Our system offers a suite of specialist schools that seek to develop talent in high potential students. Families can choose to apply for a position at an academically-selective class or school.
Students are selected on the balance of an ability test and a school recommendation, with the selective schools test made up of reading, mathematics, general ability, and a writing component. Schools also submit marks based on the student's academic achievement. We have:
- 19 fully selective high schools – where students are selected largely via an academic test
- 29 partially selective schools – selective classes operate alongside a comprehensive intake of students enrolled from the local area.
- 76 primary schools with opportunity classes – or ‘OCs' – for gifted and talented Year 5 and 6 students – aged from 9-12
- 9 creative and performing arts high schools
- 7 specialist sports high schools
- 1 specialist music high school, Conservatorium High School
All of this in a system of public schools that is one of the largest in the world – around 800,000 students in more than 2,200 schools covering 809,000 square kilometres of the state of NSW.
History of selective schools
The basis of what we know as selective schools grew out of the Education Reform movement at the end of the 19th century.
In the United States and Great Britain there was an emerging interest in educational psychology and pedagogy; the emerging priority of technical education and a concern, especially in Scotland, to transcend social class boundaries by providing avenues for the able poor to obtain the education they deserved.
The foundation in NSW for the early academic high schools was under the 1880 Public Instruction Act and the vision of the Premier, Henry Parkes, that education was the passport to social mobility via "free, secular, and compulsory education for all".
Advanced technical schools were established based on the recommendations of the 1903 NSW Royal Commission into Education, which found that education was not equipping bright young minds with an understanding of the advanced science and technology that would shape the next century, words that sound familiar to us today.
Arguing the case to establish the system of public selective schools accessible to all students regardless of their background, John Williams, the first Principal of Sydney Technical High School, wrote:
"Every individual has the right to realise himself: that is to fully develop the power and capacities, physical, mental, moral and spiritual: with which nature endowed him."
Fort Street High School is the oldest selective school in NSW, established in 1849. The other ‘old' academically selective schools include Sydney Girls and Sydney Boys (1883), Hurlstone Agricultural High School (1907), Sydney Technical High School (1911), North Sydney Boys and Girls (1914), and St George Girls High School in 1916.
These were some of our first secondary schools and the term ‘selective' was not used until at least the 1950s. The idea of secondary schooling in the late 19th and early 20th century would only have been considered by a small minority of students and their families.
Today's expanded system of selective schools has its origins in the election of the Coalition Greiner Government in 1988. Around this time education underwent restructuring based on a ‘market orientation' intended to stimulate competition among schools – principally through increased specialisation.
This philosophy coincided with a declining status of government schools in the public mind. Reports at the time recommended the dezoning of schools and the establishment of specialist high schools, among other things.
At this time there were four agricultural selective high schools and seven selective high schools. The system of fully-selective schools was expanded to meet the growing size of Sydney, especially in outer suburbs and lower socio-economic status areas. Selective classes were added to comprehensive schools in order to help meet the needs.
Additionally, the system of specialist high schools in sports, performing arts, and creative arts were added to the mix. Schools like Westfields Sports High School have a long history in helping many Australian Olympians and sportspeople reach the top, such as cricket captain Michael Clarke and footballers Sarah Walsh and Harry Kewell.
The Conservatorium High School, a specialist music high school connected to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, is unique in in that students undergo musical performance auditions and academic selection processes for entry, with large cohorts of students accelerating through both music and mathematics courses each year.
There has been more than a doubling of fully selective academic high schools since 1988, and the introduction of 29 hybrid partially selective schools. In 2015 Australia's first virtual selective school, Aurora College, began enrolling students from regional, rural and remote parts of the state.
Aurora College is worth a brief detour today, because it's a new model that is helping us overcome the disadvantage of geographical remoteness to gifted students.
It's providing innovative, flexible learning in a whole new context, by allowing students to connect locally and to learn globally. Aurora offers selective classes in English, mathematics and science to gifted and talented Year 7-10 students from rural and remote areas across NSW.
In 2017, Aurora College ‘shares' students with 68 rural and remote schools. The students come from all corners of NSW – from Murwillumbah in the north, to Eden in the south and west to Broken Hill.
Aurora provides a mix of online and residential school classes. Students connect with their teachers and classmates in timetabled lessons through a virtual learning environment, which includes web conferencing software, a learning management system, and a range of cutting-edge online communication and collaboration tools.
We know – and often hear – that social isolation is an issue for gifted students, and this is especially so in rural and remote areas, so at Aurora College there is a virtual playground. The students' faces are their avatars, beamed into the playground through webcams so they can chat, move around and join groups.
Benefits of selective schools
The rationale for the increase in selective schools since 1988 was to provide more diversity and choice to parents and students, especially in areas that had limited access to such schools.
We know that research supports the use of ability grouping structures for gifted students, and that their use helps to facilitate differentiation and acceleration. It ensures that schools can specialise in the delivery of teaching and support programs to help meet the needs of gifted students. Working with like-minds helps students to make strong social and working relationships, many of which last long into life after school.
Selective schools have provided a reputational advantage to public education. HSC results each year clearly show that the highest performing schools in NSW are government selective schools.
We do not encourage or endorse the academic league tables created by the media. But they are a fact of life – and they show that one selective school, James Ruse Agricultural High School, has topped the state in the HSC every single year for the past 20 years. The top 10 list is each year dominated by public selective schools.
Demand for entry into these schools is high. This year 13,451 students attempted the selective schools test for 4,226 academically selective Year 7 places in NSW government schools.
Gifted and Talented Policy 2004
In our department we think it's crucial that all schools are able to set high expectations and extend all students so that they can work towards their potential. And we know that not all gifted students are in our selective schools or opportunity classes; many are doing brilliantly in comprehensive high schools while others may have not been identified as gifted.
Our Gifted and Talented policy was introduced in 2004 and set the standard in Australia for its comprehensive package of support materials and professional learning.
Identification, differentiation, grouping, and acceleration all formed part of the suite of options available to schools to help meet the needs of their brightest students. The 2004 policy development was led by Dr Angela Chessman and included Emeritus Professor Miraca Gross and her team at UNSW's GERRIC centre, who hosts us this week.
Professor Gross's research into exceptionally gifted students, academic acceleration, and social development saw her contribute strongly to the development of the gifted education research field in Australia and internationally.
The 2004 policy improved on the earlier 1983 and 1991 state polices and established Francoys Gagné's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent as the central conceptual understanding of giftedness – gifted, as the potential or the raw materials – and talent, the outstanding achievement of the finished product.
Why review the 2004 policy?
New South Wales public schools have led the way in providing for high potential students, regardless of their postcode or social background. In revising the 2004 policy, we recognise that socioeconomic status is an increasingly large factor in educational achievement in Australia, and one where public schools shoulder the heaviest burden.
Our understanding of what works best in teaching and learning has greatly improved in recent decades. Our Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, the state's authority on education research, analyses our student achievement and synthesises the research literature on effective practices in education.
An analysis of student achievement data shows us that not all gifted and high potential students are doing as well as they could be – and this is the case across Australia – with significant excellence gaps apparent for students from low socioeconomic and refugee backgrounds and from rural and remote areas.
Newer research into conceptualising talent development has helped us better understand why some of our students are underachieving, and what we can do about it to support their talent development.
Dip in high achievement performance
Of great concern nationally is the slide in performance among our high achievers on international and national assessments. If we track the percentage of students achieving in the ‘high' achievement range (top two bands) on the three PISA test components from 2000 to 2015, we see a general decline, nationally, from 17% for reading, 20% for mathematics, and 15% for science, down to 11% for all three in 2015. High SES students have recorded the more notable drop in maths achievement.
If we look at the percentage of students who achieved at the advanced benchmark for Year 8 Science in TIMMS in 2015, we can see that NSW is behind some major English-speaking economies such as the United States and England – and well behind major Asian high achievers.
However, the picture gets worse if we look at the percentage of students reaching the advanced achievement benchmark for TIMMS 2015 Year 8 Science sorted by GDP per capita.
High figures show that a country has a very high percentage of high-achieving students compared to their GDP per capita (such as emerging economies like Kazakhstan and Hungary). Strong Asian economies like Japan and Singapore hold up very well.
Australia and NSW – with a very high GDP but lower percentages of high achievers – is down the bottom of the graph. We are also behind many English-speaking economies.
So if NSW was a nation it would rank 18th in Year 8 science on the basis of straight achievement – but 31st out of 38 countries when GDP is taken into account.
GDP, of course, is an indicator of economic output and is strongly related to levels of higher education, research output and technology development – so really there should be a relationship between GDP and academic high performance.
Another indicator that goes to the heart of our equity concerns is the visible gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous students in the high achievement range in these international tests. There has been some improvement in student results for Aboriginal students from 2012 to 2015 but the gap is still too wide.
Across many measures, not enough high potential Australian students are achieving their academic potential. We recognise that student underachievement is a significant problem not just limited to gifted students, but also to high potential students who are above the average range, but may not be in our selective schools or classes.
What the research is telling us
In preparing for a new gifted educational policy, we commissioned the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation to produce a literature review on the gifted education evidence base – no small challenge – that will support the development of a new policy and be part of the professional learning support package.
We aim to use the strong research work of many of those assembled here to ensure that our practices are informed by the very best evidence base available.
We've gone through all of the major research of the past decade to help build a strong evidence base on which to build our policy.
We've been influenced by the work of many of the great researchers in this field – research by Jonathan Plucker and Scott Peters into excellence and equity gaps, as well as Carolyn Callahan's work with Plucker on effective practices in gifted education; Susan Assouline, Nicholas Colangelo, Karen Rogers, and Miraca Gross into academic acceleration; the late John Geake's pioneering work on the neuroscience of high ability; Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth's research into the mindset and grit needed to achieve at the highest level.
We also recognise the strong research work by Australian academics such as Wilma Vialle, Jae Jung, Susen Smith, and John Munro among many others who continue to work tirelessly to help inform teaching and learning in Australia and internationally.
Our policy review process has incorporated one of our broadest programs of community and professional engagement, and has so far involved more than 40 consultation sessions with more than 150 voices and the opinions and advice are remarkably similar to the literature review we commissioned on international and national research into gifted and talented education.
We recognise that:
- All our schools need to work hard to ensure that best practices for gifted students are part of their core business, just as we expect the best for all students.
- Acceleration, despite having one of the strongest evidence bases in education, is still under-utilised.
- The particular needs of highly, exceptionally and extremely gifted students must be acknowledged and attended to.
- There are equity concerns at the low representation of groups of gifted learners – gifted students with disability, Aboriginal students, refugee students and low SES students.
- High potential students, those who may not meet the more advanced criteria for giftedness, but still possess a high level of academic potential, are often missed and may be contributing to a broader problem of underachievement.
- The inclusion of gifted education subjects in preservice teacher training is widely supported by practitioners and by research but is rarely mandatory in pre-service teacher education courses.
- Greater professional learning for all teachers and school leaders – and especially for teachers working in specialist selective settings – is needed to equip teachers with the skills to help meet the learning needs of our brightest students.
We have a long history of academic excellence in NSW public schools but we know there is more we can do to improve.
Selective school placement procedures
In NSW public schools there are three components of the placement process for entry to a selective school at Year 7: sitting the Selective High School Placement Test; primary school student scores in English and Mathematics; and deliberations by a selection committee that includes a principal and a parent.
The test consists of a 20-minute writing task and three 40-minute multiple choice questions in reading, mathematics and general ability, developed by the Australian Council for Educational Research.
We've long had an academically-challenging process for selecting students for our advanced programs. The current procedure for identifying students for academically selective places was introduced for secondary schools in 1989 and for primary OC classes in 1996.
As the research has improved, as has the technology, we need to look and see if there are better ways to assess the academic achievement and potential of our brightest students.
Family motivation and tutoring
As a local issue, we recognise that an industry of private tutoring colleges has developed over time, where families can pay extra money to independent businesses to do extra test practice for the OC and selective school exams.
We cannot talk about reviewing gifted and talented policy without looking at the role of family motivation and the influence of the tutoring industry.
There are many different views on tutoring – it's consistently a controversial topic in the media and discussions over espressos in Sydney.
There is limited empirical research about whether tutoring is effective in improving the chances of a student being accepted into a selective setting, but research generally supports the notion that extensive test practice and preparation may provide an advantage in gaining a higher score on tests.
There is, however, significant community perception that tutoring is necessary for successful entry and parents can spend more than $20,000 a year on preparation for OC or selective high school tests. Estimates place the size of the school tutoring business industry at well over $1 billion dollars annually.
As coaching booms we are seeing a decline in the proportion of low SES students gaining entry into selective schools. It isn't difficult to join the dots.
Less than 3% of students in our selective school settings are drawn from the lowest SES quartile, a marked decline over the past decades. We know from research that gifted and talented individuals are found across all socioeconomic levels, from all cultures, and from all parts of the country.
Current evidence suggests that academic ability should be much more evenly distributed across all social and cultural groups that is reflected today in the demographic composition of our selective schools, as is the case for many gifted education programs internationally. We also know from research that disadvantaged and minority populations are highly under-represented in many international gifted education programs.
In Australia, students from lower SES backgrounds are increasingly less likely to achieve at the top end than students in the middle or top quartiles. Analysis of PISA and TIMMS data from ACER shows that nearly six times as many students from the top SES quartile (22%) achieve in the highest band on international tests compared to the bottom SES quartile (4%).
We'd like to explore more how we can ensure that bright students have a chance to reach – and exceed – their potential regardless of their postcode.
Do we need to look at other models of selection? Assessment has advanced considerably since we developed our entry test procedures. Alternative models include computer-adaptive IQ tests that assess cognitive skills, student work portfolios that show achievement in curriculum over time, problem-solving tasks that rely more on higher-order and critical thinking skills – all harder to prepare for than through tutoring or test familiarisation, and potentially better indicators of the types of skills needed for the 21st century.
Reviewing our gifted student identification and selection procedures will ensure we are committed to the principles of our education system – that all students, in all schools, have the opportunity to reach their academic potential.
Broadening identification of students
I don't need to tell this learned gathering that models of giftedness vary around the world and in Australia.
In the current working definition used in Australia, gifted constitutes the top 10% of potential in a population. We also recognise that gifted students are not a homogenous group – they incorporate students whose ability is exceptionally advanced for their age, but also gifted students with disabilities that may make their learning experience even more challenging.
Our new policy will continue to use Gagne's Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talented . . . that to get a student from giftedness to talented requires a process of talent development – formal and informal learning, plus time and practice and feedback. It will focus on gifted students as the students in our classroom, and talent development as part of the role schools must play to help all students reach their potential.
The policy will for the first time incorporate high potential students – students above the average range who have the potential to achieve highly. This would include a broad range of students who are underachieving or may have missed out on identification as gifted students.
We want to make it clear that all schools will have a critical mass of students above the average range that need to be challenged and supported.
To be clear we are not redefining giftedness – the policy will differentiate between high potential and gifted as part of a group of students who need support but with differences in their needs.
This will help strengthen our provision for high potential students, who may need more in the way of curriculum differentiation and enrichment, while making clear how stronger measures such as academic acceleration and selective schools are of greater benefit for more highly-gifted students.
The policy will make clear that high potential and gifted students require specific learning strategies and a supportive learning environment to facilitate their talent development. All schools across the state continue to have a responsibility to develop and deliver robust and rigorous differentiated learning experiences that extend and enrich each student.
Our objectives are to support all schools to create a critical mass of students who are aspiring to high achievement – high expectations for all learners.
We want to promote the use of research and evidence as the basis for decision-making and action in all schools and classrooms. Publications like CESE's What Works Best and the use of student achievement and diagnostic data will help teachers make informed decisions on how best to meet the learning needs of high potential and gifted students.
Formative assessment, that strong driver of student growth and learning, will feature strongly as a way of ensuring that schools get a sense of where students have already achieved mastery to help avoid repetition and boredom in class.
I have framed a few key themes here today in terms of our commitment to improve equity, extend the identification of gifted and high potential students and make it very clear that all schools have a responsibility to identify, nurture and develop these students.
Our policy is still being finalised but it will include:
- The strengthened, explicit reference to the differing needs of highly, exceptionally and profoundly gifted students – that is, students whose intelligence is rarer than 1 in 1,000 through to 1 in 10,000 and beyond.
- To support these students, we will revise and strengthen our guidelines for academic acceleration for gifted students. The overwhelming evidence base of the academic, social, and personal benefits of acceleration are too hard to ignore.
- The first explicit reference as a policy statement to the needs of gifted students with disability. The policy will clearly connect their advanced learning needs with student disability services and requirements under legislation.
- Stronger inclusion of selective and OC schools into the policy
- Recognise for the first time that specialist high schools – sports, design, creative and performing arts and the Conservatorium – are talent development centres that specialise in their particular domain of talent.
This policy will dovetail with our philosophy for public education in NSW – and that is, we want every student, every teacher, every school, every leader, to improve every year.
We are preparing young people to live rewarding lives in an increasingly complex world. Many experts are predicting that technological developments, including in Artificial Intelligence, robotics and automation, are going to transform the way we live and work, on a scale similar to the industrial revolution.
So the future work skills our students need will be enhanced through authentic, real-world learning and learner-led forms of inquiry. Research tells us we need to understand the world that our learners will inherit and the work skills they need to navigate their way effectively.
The profound changes ahead demand an education approach that lifts the proficiency of all students. As Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London, has so succinctly put it:
"Our world is becoming more and more complex, and so higher and higher levels of educational achievement will be needed to be in control of one's own life, to understand one's culture, to participate meaningfully in democracy, and to find fulfilling work."
This is critical because the five-year-olds who started Kindergarten this year will be at university in 2030 and will spend most of their working lives in the second half of the 21st century.
It's always been the case that our schools hold the future within their classrooms, but today's education systems need to set the foundations for these young children to thrive in life and work in 2050 and perhaps through to 2090.
Such is the pace of change wrought by advancing technologies that it is highly conceivable that these young children will be living in a world radically different from our own.
We welcome the high-level insight from the experts in this room and I can assure you that your work will feed into our thinking and our policy development.
Future thinking – and planning for the future – matters more now than ever before. And it means we can't just keep doing what we've always been doing.