NZ schools 'a step back' for gifted kids

Massey University gifted education specialist Associate Professor Tracy Riley.
Massey University gifted education specialist Associate Professor Tracy Riley.

The smartest kids in the country may be missing out in the classroom, as teachers and resources are focused on helping their under-achieving peers.

A new Massey University study revealed gifted learners in some schools were at risk of stagnating, as support from the Ministry of Education for talented education had declined since funding and support levels were cut in 2009.

Massey University gifted education specialist Associate Professor Tracy Riley and Waikato University's Dr Brenda Bicknell surveyed primary and secondary schools to find out whether gifted learners were getting a better deal from the education system since the Ministry of Education investigated 10 years ago.

While a number of initiatives developed by the ministry had been adopted with positive results, gifted and talented education had its advisory group disbanded, targeted funding for innovative programmes had been lost, and a "revolving door" at the Ministry of Education meant personnel responsible for identifying and providing for gifted learners were continuously changing.

Lower decile schools had "an increased focus on priority learners (Maori, Pasifika, and special needs), perhaps with a detrimental effect on gifted and talented students", their report, published this week, said.

But a Ministry of Education spokesperson said all schools were required to "recognise gifted and talented students and to develop strategies to meet their learning needs, so that they can reach their potential".

"This year we will spend $1.27m to support schools to provide for their gifted and talented students."

But the study found confusion persisted in some schools with how to define and identify gifted learners, particularly students from minority cultures where giftedness may be expressed collectively, Riley, who is chair of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, said.

A 10-year-old gifted learner expressed her frustration at the education system, and said it was meant to be "a challenge and a place to learn".

"But then, after attending your average class in your age-co-ordinated grade, you think 'why didn't I get the one thing I wanted out of this hour? New knowledge!'"

The Ministry of Education's vision was for gifted and talented learners to be recognised, valued and empowered to develop their abilities and qualities, but Riley and Bicknell questioned whether that was any closer to fulfillment, nine years after the introduction of national guidelines for gifted education.

The study echoed concerns from the Professional Association for Gifted Education, the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, and the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education in a joint statement issued this week.

The Government and the Ministry of Education needed to prioritise recognition and funding for gifted learners, the researchers said.

However, the ministry spokesperson said it supported schools to provide for their gifted and talented students in a range of ways, "including development of resources, professional development opportunities and providing an online community space for sharing  ideas and practice".

Collaborative work from experienced professionals and academics in New Zealand had also been used in a revised handbook, used to give schools advice in how to identify gifted and talented students  and provide them with "rich learning opportunities", the spokesperson said.

All New Zealand schools were invited to take part in an online survey to contribute to  the study, and results were based on the 327, 13 per cent of schools nationwide, that responded.