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Opinion: Ireland's brightest kids may never fulfill their potential as most schools don't do enough to challenge them

Despite our policy of focusing on the smart economy and jobs in technology – no strategy exists to promote the learning of our brightest students, writes Colm O’Reilly.

Colm O'Reilly

AS A PRACTITIONER in the field of high ability or gifted education, I am well aware of the polarising opinions that this work can provoke.

Some people may feel that the allocation of resources to what they perceive as a privileged group is a wasted exercise. The mistaken belief that all gifted children are from middle-class backgrounds, and will all do well at school, seems to prevail in many instances.

The truth is that many gifted children will lose interest in school if they are not challenged and this could result in them underperforming.

I would also suggest that it is beneficial to Irish society to foster our brightest students and we need to do so if we want to excel in areas like science, technology and the smart economy.

The Centre for Talented Youth

The Centre for Talented Youth (CTY ) Ireland is a not-for-profit programme based in Dublin City University that offers challenging courses to high-ability students aged between 6 and 17.

Last year some 6,000 students attended courses run by CTY Ireland at DCU and various other colleges around the country.  

Recently we conducted a survey of parents of academically talented students who attend our courses.

Some 1,440 parents completed the survey and reported on the experiences of their children in schools throughout Ireland – every county was represented.

Many of the parents came from lower socio-economic backgrounds and 10% had children who attended DEIS schools.

15% had children who were twice exceptional – that is they had high ability but also had a learning difficulty including Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD or dyslexia.

Approximately 80% of the parents said that their children attended public school.

While many of these parents spoke of the positive academic and social experience that their child has at CTY Ireland, many were very dissatisfied with the schooling provided for their children.  

More than 70% of parents said that their child was not challenged at school and that they very rarely or never received differentiated assignments.

A common thread in parents’ descriptions was the lack of planning and consistency in setting tasks for their children. Almost half of the parents felt their child’s homework assignments were of little or no value.  

International comparison

Ireland is rightly lauded in many circles as an excellent educational system and teachers in this country are usually more qualified than their European counterparts but our record in the education of high ability children is poor and, indeed in many cases, is non-existent.  

The absence of gifted education on the agenda for special needs education is a worry when one considers that many of these children are two to three standard deviations above the middle – but are expected to follow the same curriculum as students of much lower ability.

This can lead to boredom and frustration at school and a child not performing to the best of their ability.

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (2015) further illustrate this.

While Ireland has improved its mean scores in maths and verbal areas the scoring at the upper level of these exams is not encouraging.  

Fewer than 10% of students perform at the higher levels of maths and our science scores demonstrate that many students are not achieving to their potential.

Unchallenged

Parents who completed our survey reported that more than half of the schools have no policy in place to identify high ability students and that their school has no policy for accelerating students through the curriculum.

This is despite the fact that all of the research in this field shows that acceleration and differentiation of material works for these students.

I have worked in this field for more than 20 years now and during that time we have made great strides in ensuring we identify more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and from diverse backgrounds including new communities.  

But the problems at school are still the same as they were when I started out. Regardless of their background, gifted students are not being challenged enough.

The norm is that those exceptional children have to wait until everyone else is finished until they move to the next lesson or they are ‘rewarded’ with extra questions on the same material for finishing quickly.

I do recognise that schools have limited resources and many are doing their best in difficult circumstances but the solution for high ability children seems to be to just let them at it and it will all work out in the end.

Sadly with years of being unchallenged and never having an opportunity to do stuff that they are interested in often leads to high levels of underachievement and children not reaching their potential. 

With much of government policy focusing on the smart economy and the need to promote skilled jobs in the technology industry, it seems surprising that no strategy exists to promote the learning of our brightest students.

Dr Colm O’Reilly is the Director of CTY Ireland at Dublin City University and has written a number of reports on gifted education.

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Colm O'Reilly

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