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'My daughter has special needs too': How should we educate gifted children in Ireland?

In Alberta, Canada, all gifted children are entitled to personalised learning plans, with the option of a specialised programme too.

Image: Shutterstock/Eugene Partyzan

Ireland is grappling with a series of challenges that are impacting our citizens’ quality of life. TheJournal.ie is examining solutions to these issues which have worked or are currently being trialled in other states and asking: Would It Work Here?

CIARA (NOT HER real name) took a Mensa IQ test on her 11th birthday and received a confirmed result of 162 IQ.

This places her among the top <1% of people in the country. But, her father says that the lack of special attention given to Ciara in school means that she is not fulfilling her potential.

He told TheJournal.ie: “I would argue that my daughter has special needs in just the same way as a child who may be struggling with their education.

She is often bored with school which turns her off education. This parallels with the experiences of children who are put off education because they struggle in class.

Ireland has no real national programme for keeping young, gifted children occupied, engaged and stimulated in school.

If gifted children are not stimulated in school, they may not always be high achievers and lag behind others.

Individual schools must allocate resources from their existing budgets if they are to provide for extra teaching for children with high and above-average IQ.

In Ireland, there are about 40,000 children classed as “exceptionally gifted”, or among the top 5% of the most intelligent young people.

The closest thing we have to a nationwide programme comes from Dublin City University, which runs the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI).

From its Glasnevin campus and centres around the country, the CTYI says it aims to “allow talented students to reach their potential both academically and socially by providing relevant and interesting challenges based on ability and interest rather than age”.

The CTYI offers Saturday classes during term time for younger children, and a three-week residential course for teenagers during the summer.

However, those spearheading the initiative believe that changes need to be made in individual schools to allow gifted children to excel.

shutterstock_118599097 Source: Shutterstock/Pressmaster

The director of the CTYI, Dr Colm O’Reilly, agrees that the Irish education system has to change to ensure that these children reach their maximum potential, rather than a system which is geared towards ensuring everyone reaches a basic minimum.

He said: “If we were talking about ensuring that children with learning difficulties were getting the best education they possibly could – this wouldn’t even be questioned.

But because we’re talking about bright kids it seems to be not as accepted and people seem more reluctant to push them ahead.

Canadian example

The Canadian state of Alberta has a population of around four million people. Its most populous city – Calgary – has a population just tipping over one million.

Under Code 80 of Alberta’s Special Education Code, all children deemed “gifted” are entitled to an IPP – or individualised programme plan.

Special learning needs and outcomes – including content, process, products, peer environment and assessment – are designated and monitored through this IPP.

Each one is very detailed, with a checklist to ensure that elements of the child’s learning is catered for.

ipp checklist The checklist ensures that all areas that need attention are identified and acted on. Source: Alberta Board of Education

If a school is not able to facilitate these elements, then an alternative is available to allow more gifted children to learn among their peers.

Four schools in Calgary offer the GATE – Gifted and Talented Education – programme in addition to regular classes.

To be deemed eligible, children are designated as intellectually gifted when they have an IQ over 130 as determined by a registered psychologist who administers an individual standardised assessment.

Then, it must be determined that adjustments in their day-to-day school life are required to address their needs.

Offered for young people from the fourth grade (typically around nine to 10-year-olds) to 12th grade (around 17-18 years of age), each student is enrolled in a specialised class with peers of similar intellectual ability.

Administered by the Calgary Board of Education, they say that the GATE programme is the one “most often associated” with meeting the needs of gifted learners.

Students are assigned to one of the participating schools depending on the area they live in and a parent association supports and fundraises for the initiative to run and maintain high standards.

One English teacher who was brought in to teach Shakespeare to GATE students aged nine was astonished at the reaction from the whole class.

She told the Calgary Herald: ”Intellectually, they were at university level, but they were trapped in these little kid bodies… They just got it. For me, as a teacher, it was a dream come true.”

The parents’ association also helps to fund professional development for teachers on the programme, so that they can develop more expertise in providing education for gifted children.

According to the body, the programme changes and adapts as children get older. They say:

In the elementary (primary school) setting, classroom work focuses on enrichment of the curriculum and development of more higher order and complex thinking skills.
In the junior high (early secondary school) programme, students are offered the option to pursue acceleration of subjects in addition to enrichment. For example, a student may choose to accelerate through Maths and Science to complete grade 10 programming before the end of their grade nine-year.
In high school (leaving cert equivalent), students may choose GATE programming for all of their core subjects or they may choose to divide their classes between pre-advanced placement courses and/or international baccalaureate programming.

Would it work here?

Ciara’s father filled us in on what her school – based in Meath – does to try to offer an extended learning programme for her and another classmate.

He said: “They take the children once every two weeks for an hour and use a variety of non-curriculum tools and aids to try to stimulate further and extended learning. It is quite ad-hoc and dependent on availability of another teacher at the time to progress the learning.”

In the state of Alberta, however, children are entitled to their own individualised plan designed to help them excel, while a further programme can be enrolled in to ensure they learn an enhanced curriculum among similarly-abled peers.

The director of the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland, Dr Colm O’Reilly, told TheJournal.ie that the idea of an individualised plan for each gifted students would certainly be beneficial but isn’t sure that the funding is present for such a programme in Ireland.

On the subject of something similar to the GATE programme in designated public schools around Dublin, for example, as it has a similar population to that of Calgary in Canada, O’Reilly said that it’s very useful “putting bright kids together with bright kids” as they “work well together”.

He said: “Bright kids are not just uniform in that they all do well in school. Gifted children may not always be high achievers in a normal classroom. They often don’t have that motivation when they’re not being pushed or challenged.

Some of these children can be hard to teach in a school context. You can have a lot of success in helping kids reach their potential when you try something a bit different.

As for actually bringing it in here, O’Reilly is sceptical. A lack of funding, and a lack of enthusiasm to provide funding, in this area of education by the Department of Education would be one of the major issues, according to O’Reilly.

“It’s funding contingent. It would be an improvement on what is being done in our schools, but it would be a difficult thing to achieve.

It’s certainly implementable, but the question has to be asked if this form of education is a higher priority for the department than other issues and I’m not sure that’s the case.

At the time of writing, the Department of Education has not responded to requests from TheJournal.ie for comment.

Read: Three challenges of being an exceptionally gifted child – cyberbullying, underachieving and money

Read: “We all have a particular talent – but it’s one with a bad reputation”

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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