Opinion: Forget the Games, we need to support our gifted students (20/08/12)

ANOTHER Olympic Games is over and once again we are debating the level of funding Australia provides for athletes and whether it is enough to compete against the US, China and other growing powers.


Although funding our athletes is important, the debate over how government can support excellence needs to get out of the pool and back into the classroom. We need to look at how we can support our students to “go for gold” and compete on the international stage.


A year ago, a study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development found that the mean literacy score for Australian teenagers had declined between the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of 2000 and 2009. We are one of five countries that registered a significant decline.


While we are still above average, this is a worrying trend for a country that, rightly, has always been proud to punch above its weight. What can be done to support our best and brightest students and ensure that the skills of Australia’s youth are put to work for a better future?


State Parliament’s education and training committee, which I chair, recently released a report into the education of gifted and talented students. The report demonstrates that failure to provide appropriately for these students in schools can have severe and devastating consequences.


There are an estimated 85,000 gifted students in Victoria — 10 per cent of the student population. These students have gifts in a variety of areas, from science to sport, language and leadership. However, natural ability does not automatically translate into high-level performance: gifts need to be nurtured and nourished to become fully realised as outstanding performance. There is no doubt that Sally Pearson has natural gifts on the track, but these had to be identified and finessed before she could achieve Olympic gold.


The alarming fact is that we have a large number of these potentially brilliant minds dropping out at year 10. Some of the reasons for this include gifted students being frequently bullied at school, becoming bored and frustrated and developing behavioural problems that only exacerbate their disconnect from the learning environment.


In addition to those that leave the education system, some stay but because they are not appropriately challenged become disengaged from learning early. They, too, become bored and frustrated and may even experience mental health issues and be vulnerable to anxiety and depression.


The committee’s report highlights the need for all schools to develop and promote cultures of tolerance and acceptance that celebrate the gifts and successes of all students.


In the past, this policy area has often been filled with ad hoc measures when a consistent, statewide approach is needed to ensure every student in every school receives an education suited to their needs and abilities.


We have a great opportunity to invest in our brightest to help them reach their potential. Some of the recommendations in the report include building networks between schools and students to encourage the exchange of ideas and teaching practices. This would be a “virtual school”, an online facility providing a range of extension and learning opportunities for students and teachers.


Every gifted student is different. No single strategy can meet all their learning needs. However, some approaches have proved particularly effective for high-ability students. These include curriculum differentiation, ability grouping, acceleration and enrichment and enhancement. The committee concluded that personalised learning, incorporating these strategies, must form the cornerstone of gifted education in Victoria.


Early on in his presidency, Barack Obama unveiled the Race to the Top initiative that challenged government at every level in America to work harder in promoting excellence in schools. Given Australia’s competitive nature, as seen in London, a challenge like this could see our states become incubators of excellence and spur schools towards new ways of providing for the best students.


Victoria has a proud history as a global leader in creativity and innovation. If this is to continue governments must give our best and brightest young people the finest education we can.


This problem cannot be solved merely by money, but by the attitudes that society has towards this cohort, our brightest kids. Instead of kids dumbing themselves down to fit in, we need to make it “sexy to be smart” and provide opportunities for kids who excel to “go for gold”.


David Southwick is the MP for Caulfield and chairman of the Victorian Parliament’s education and training committee.

This was originally published in The Age on Monday, 20 August 2012. The original can be read here.

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