A tiny, bright ingredient of the smart nation we say we want

Let’s say you’re 10 and gifted and live in Glen Innes or Wainuiomata. Your gift is not athletic or you would already be getting special encouragement. You are gifted in what your head does.

You do convoluted puzzles fast. You connect ideas that bamboozle adults. You are more than bright. You are superbright, one of a tiny sliver of the population.

And you are in a classroom with an overworked teacher who is also doing her best for a deaf child and a mentally impaired child.

You whizz through the set work. The teacher might set you more. But even then you might get bored, drift off, become a “problem” child. When you grow up you will, of course, use your astonishing talents — but it might well be destructively.

That would be a waste — to you, of course, but to everyone else in this country. You could instead be a cutting-edge scientist, theorist or writer.

You wouldn’t be wasted if you lived in Epsom or Kelburn. Your well-to-do, well-connected and powerful parents would see you are seen to.

But in your “decile 1” suburb, where the state houses are, your folks don’t have money, connections or power — nor perhaps the insight to spot your gift through your sometimes strange behaviour. Your teacher might not either.

That’s why posh ex-teacher Christine Fernyhough has got excited about you. In six low-decile suburbs her Gifted Kids scheme has wheedled state funds for primary school classrooms round the country to which 450 kids like you go one day a week.

There you and like misfits are stretched as far as you can go. Being creative is standard. Learning has meaning. There is a place for someone like you.

Education Minister Trevor Mallard knows this and has put state money and moral support behind Fernyhough’s and another scheme. “They stretch kids in a really good way,” former teacher Mallard says.

But just before Christmas Mallard rejected Fernyhough’s bid to set up a dedicated school in Auckland for 11-14-year-olds, years 7-10.

Remember, these are not kids from the big end of town. This is not the well-to-do privileging their own (as in their rough politics on university fees). This is not snob elitism.

This is the small end of town where talent often goes to waste or goes bad. This is excellence elitism, the sort that can benefit us all.

Why did Mallard turn Fernyhough down? Essentially for these reasons:

* There is an “identifiability” problem. How exactly do you separate the gifted from the bright? Are there objective criteria? How do you decide which kids qualify and which ones of those to choose. What happens when parents whose children missed out throw tantrums? Fernyhough’s answer of a panel did not satisfy Mallard.

* It is an “enormous call” to start a whole school, to go beyond the one-day-a-week system and separate the kids out entirely. It is a call on scarce state funds when there is, Mallard says, “enormous pressure” on the school system across the Auckland isthmus. And it is a big call for Fernyhough’s team which so far has limited experience and has run only one-day-a-week schemes. Mallard recalls the difficulties Books in Homes got into when Fernyhough and Alan Duff fell out.

* Mallard is doing a full evaluation next year of mainstream schools’ ability to recognise and respond to giftedness. This will be audited by the Education Review Office.

So Mallard’s rejection of Fernyhough is not reverting to 1970s social democratic one-size-fits-all.

It is not hard to find educators (including outside the bureaucracy) who back him. They worry that taking the very top pupils, especially from low-decile schools, might disadvantage the schools and the other pupils. These educators say one-day-a-week classes are valuable but are not keen on dedicated fulltime schools.

But it is also not hard to find educators who worry about “mainstreaming” the very most able (and the very least able). Families struggle with “mainstreamed” mentally unstable relatives dumped out of specialised facilities. Teachers struggle to accommodate the learning-disadvantaged who are often picked on by other kids.

Such educators — Tracey Riley, senior lecturer at Massey University and a supporter of Fernyhough, is one — say how well or poorly gifted kids do in mixed-ability classes has not been researched (she is doing some). Riley says teachers have hardly any training in identifying and responding to gifted children. She says multi-faceted and objective selection criteria are available in other countries (she is American) and curriculums have been developed for gifted kids.

Who cares? If we want the climb back up the OECD ladder we all care. That climb depends heavily on maximising human capital (research, inventiveness, creativity, skill) — which is an under-resourced dimension of the government’s vaunted but fuzzy growth and innovation framework, now under review.

OK, you are 10 and gifted and in Glen Innes. Could you be an important, if tiny, ingredient in the growth and innovation framework? You bet.