Monday, 7 July 2008

Gifted and Talented?

By Mark Featherstone
Over the last couple of weeks I have heard numerous mention of the Government's 'Gifted and Talented' policy initiative from colleagues and friends with school age children. My own son has not yet reached school age. As I understand it the aim of this education policy is to identify 'Gifted and Talented' children and make special provision for them in the classroom. Although this policy seems innocuous enough, in that it simply suggests that different children have different educational needs, I could not help but feel that there is something rather dangerous hiding behind the idea that gifted children need special attention. Again, there is nothing particularly controversial in the idea that talent is natural, but the overall effect of rooting this assumption in social policy is to make it appear that differences in educational achievement and success in later life are somehow natural effects that should be encouraged, rather than managed by the state. But what does this mean?

Let me explain. The first point we must consider is the idea of the gifted or talented child. Although this notion is rooted in common sense, this does not mean that it does not carry a lot of weight in the world. Quite the reverse. However, having said this, I'm sure nobody would be surprised if it turned out that the majority of gifted and talented children measured by state standards came from middle class families. In other words, it would come as no surprise to anybody if we were to find out that the rich produced gifted and talented children who were therefore deserving of special treatment in order to ensure that they eventually replaced their parents in their privileged place in society. This is, of course, called class reproduction. One response, the conservative response, to this view would be to say that the rich are rich because they are gifted and talented. In other words, society is constructed on the basis of natural abilities. The alternate leftist, and I would say properly sociological, response would be to reverse the equation and say that the rich are gifted and talented because they are rich and that the idea of gifts and talents simply naturalizes social inequality making it seem acceptable to those who are less rich because they can tell themselves that their problem is that they are naturally less gifted and talented.

Nobody would deny gifted or talented children the right to express their abilities, but it is problematic to feed this idea through policy into the education system. The current 'Gifted and Talented' initiative 'naturalizes' inequality. It is likely to reproduce social divisions through education. Such policy is entirely ignorant of the ways in which ability and intelligence are culturally coded and more or less reliant on access in order to emerge into the light of day. Who knows what happens to the child who is excluded from the elite club of the gifted and talented and does not therefore live out the rest of their life under those labels? Moreover, from what position do educationalists presume to make judgments about gifts and talents? In answer to the first question, one would have to assume that life would be a lot easier once one is labelled gifted and / or talented, mainly because one can command the resources given over to the new state-identified brainy elites. In answer to the second question, presumably one must have some knowledge of gifts and talents oneself in order to make decisions about which individuals possess gifts and talents in some embryonic childhood state? Given the current New Labour government's commitment to measure everything by statistics, which always gravitate towards the mediocre, I doubt there is any real sense of how to spot gifts and talents in the current policy makers of the British state. The really gifted and talented will always be outsiders, simply by virtue of their position vis the majority. I think that the idea that such people can be identified and harnessed by the state is the product of the overly bureaucratic idea of reality operative in contemporary New Labour Britain, which is, in many respects, similar to the thought processes that led the East German state to believe that it could identify and produce athletes and swimmers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Finally, I think we have to ask ourselves why New Labour would want to lavish so much attention on our gifted and talented children? Like the East Germans, I think that we must assume that they are not particularly interested in the child's right to self-expression. On the other hand, if the government was interested in real social improvement surely it would be a better idea to try to raise the level of failing children and leave the gifted free to express themselves outside of educational hot houses? I think the answer to this question resides in Gordon Brown's desire to produce a new entrepreneurial elite able to keep Britain in the race that is contemporary global capitalism. Given this aim, and in a capitalist world where innovation is all that matters, the fate of Britain's gifted and talented children is extremely important. Thus the 'Gifted and Talented' policy initiative is indicative of the rise of what we might call the new utilitarianism of brains where all that matters is convincing educationalists that you have some kind of useful skill or creative ability that can profitably advance the cause of Britain in the worldwide knowledge economy.

As a sociologist of utopias and dystopias with an over-active imagination I was struck not only by the comparison between Gordon Brown's efforts to foster gifted and talented children and the East German state's desire to produce communist super-heroes who would demonstrate the superiority of Marxism through athletic success, but also by the similarities between New Labour's 'Gifted and Talented' project and Plato's Ancient theory of the philosopher kings. In both worlds, our contemporary capitalist society and Plato's fictional city, all that matters is convincing the people who matter that you have the brains to become part of the ruling elite. Similarly, in both societies it does not pay to be left out of the elite, it does not pay to be labelled 'ordinary and mediocre', because those who cannot demonstrate special abilities occupy the lower orders and become the service sector workers of society.

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