Masters Unit Educational Enquiry Unit, University of Bath
Ros Hurford, St Michaels CE Junior School, Bath.
How does the Writing of a new Gifted and Talented Policy enable me to reflect upon and evaluate my Personal values about Gifts and Talents? In what ways am I living my values in this area?
'He seemed caught up in a virtuous circle.' Hymer, B. (2007, p4)
'We discover we have vastly underestimated the outer limits of human potential, constrained only by our own imagination and the structures we have invented to contain children's learning.' McBeath, J. (2006, p5)
Education for 'Gifted and Talented' children has gained in public profile over the past few years. Starting out from patchy provision with pockets of interest in how more able children were provided for, the subject became more formal with the publication in 2003 by the DfES of 'Excellence and Enjoyment', which laid out the need to take more seriously the level of provision for those identified as 'Gifted and Talented' This has been developed even further by the DfES with numerous web pages available on the Standards Site for identifying and teaching this group of children, leading to the introduction of a National Register, Quality Standards and training of Leading Teachers. More recently the topic was aired publicly in the National Press following the Conference of the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children, with a lively, but divided, response in the Guardian and the Times in August 2007.
The stimulus for this Master's enquiry came about when I was required to evaluate and recommend updates for the school policy on Gifted and Talented children. The previous document had been written by me in 2002 (Appendix 1) and since then there have been several changes to government requirements, both mandatory and advisable.
Any policy needs to be approved of and supported by all staff in order to become a working reality of the organisation's values and ethos; otherwise it becomes merely a paper exercise. I was concerned that with such a wealth of conflicting views and statements from respected sources I needed to be able to guide staff clearly in how to support more able children without losing sight of personally important teaching philosophies and values. I wanted the revised policy to be practical and in harmony with the school's inclusional and child-centred philosophy, not something to be tagged on as an extra to what we already did, in an artificial way.
My Learning Journey
This enquiry takes the form of a narrative of my journey to improve my own understanding of 'gifted and talented' education and provision, using as a guiding framework the TASC wheel cycle of Belle Wallace (2001) to develop a better understanding of the place started at and how it evolves to the next stage of the professional action/research cycle, as set out by Whitehead and McNiff (2006).
The initial stimulus for this work was to improve my own practice, but in making public my values and learning in this area I am also endeavouring to contribute to the professional body of knowledge through discussions with my colleagues at the Tuesday evening sessions at Bath University, my colleagues at work and making my enquiry open to public scrutiny, using Habermas' (1976) criteria for validity in that I will be:
1. Uttering something understandably;
2. Giving (the hearer) something to understand;
3. Making himself thereby understandable. And
4. Coming to an understanding with another person. (p2)
Before delving into the wealth of articles and web pages already available on 'Gifted and Talented' my first task was to review the 2002 Policy and reflect on whether, in essence, it still held true to my values and those of my colleagues. I teach at a Junior School in Bath where there is a high percentage of free school meals, social problems and some 'challenging' behaviour. When I was first given the responsibility for 'Gifted and Talented' in 1997 it was nationally in its infancy as an idea. The prevailing attitude at that time, and mine I have to confess, was that we were very unlikely to have many gifted or talented children as we struggled each year to deal with a large number of special needs and learning problems. It was hard enough to raise the basic standards for good SAT results, let alone worry about the needs of a possibly tiny minority.
Change has certainly taken place since then. The needs of more able pupils is a standard feature of provision within school, an informal register is kept, children are encouraged to attend extending opportunity workshops and Summer Schools and staff are all given professional development in using P4C and TASC when they join the school. The fact that staff and children can take advantage of these opportunities is largely due to the hard work and vision of local Educational Psychologist, Marie Huxtable. Those of us there at the beginning of the changes will remember the enthusiasm of the then head teacher who insisted the whole staff attended an after school meeting on Bloom's Taxonomy led by Marie. We came away with a higher awareness of learning, instead of the gardening expertise we had anticipated!
But maybe that isn't such a bad description of what takes places as your knowledge increases. Just like plants, our change in attitude has been gradual and constantly growing, nurtured by new courses on Thinking Skills and generating 'Gifedness' It is one of those situations where one day you suddenly wonder why you ever thought anything else – and yet the changes have come through small steps of staff development and their implementation in the classroom to enhance the learning of each child. Whether we are 'old' staff or 'new' staff, in our professional conversations we all seem to share the same values that each child has the potential to become gifted and talented.
Looking back at the original policy , and sharing it with colleagues at Bath University and newer members of school staff I still felt that most of it held true to my own values, but there were areas where I had moved on in my thinking and requirements that the government had made since. My concept of 'Gifted and Talented' had moved from being an identifiable state already arrived at to being something you can become given the right opportunities, so my very real concern now was not a question of what provision we made for G&T children, but rather how were we to label and identify something that we were in the process of creating and developing?
As Hart (2004) questions:
'When young people are identified as 'more able' or 'less able' than others, are we saying something about innate intelligence or inherent capacity to learn?' (p6)
Identifying the Gifted and Talented – a dilemma.
Here I reach the nub of my 'living contradiction' (Whitehead, 2006) in that I believe my role is to develop whatever abilities each child has the ability to develop, as an ongoing living, constantly evolving thing; not just record those who already seem to have achieved 'something'. If the government's concern was that future leaders of industry, politics or education should not just come from the socially privileged sectors of society (Eyre, 2005,) then we had to address the issue that many of our pupils were not demonstrating high ability because they had never had the right conditions or opportunities to do so.
In the QCA Guidance on Teaching the Gifted and Talented (2006) the definition is given that:
'gifted' learners as those who have abilities in one or more subjects in the statutory school curriculum other than art and design, music and PE;
'talented' learners as those who have abilities in art and design, music, PE, or performing arts such as dance and drama.
This guidance uses the phrase 'gifted and talented' to describe all learners with gifts and talents.
For the children I teach the dilemma is more complex. Eyre, in the 2005 NAGTY conference, declared that teachers must:
'Formally identify and track a gifted and talented cohort in each class'
She then expands on the difficulty of identification by stating such ideas as:
'Giftedness/talent in particular areas can emerge at any point in a child's primary school education and will only emerge in response to appropriate opportunities
A minority of children demonstrate outstanding performance at the point of entry into school
Early indicators relate to quick grasp of concepts and to intellectual playfulness. Formal test results are useful but are not the single indicator in primary years
Early ability may be disguised by issues related to gender, ethnicity and social class
It is easy to confuse giftedness and rapid skills acquisition'
And Joan Freeman in her response to the Select Committee (1999) question of who the highly able children were responded that:
'Given the provision and the take up by the child, and what the child does with the provision, that is your measure of ability" (p4)
Those children at my school who appear to fit the general criteria straight away are those who have received good parenting and are supported in their education. These are the parents who are delighted to take their children to APEX workshops, discuss extension opportunities and are aware of ability as being something that can grow.
The difficult area is that group of children who do not receive support and encouragement from home, who may have social or emotional issues affecting their learning and who fail to 'shine' at school. If we only record what we can obviously 'see' rather than have faith in bringing out what we hope to find, then there is a large section of our school population who will never be encouraged to be the leaders of the future.
As 'Gifted and Talented' provision is an area that Ofsted inspectors will be examining and we are asked to provide a register of identified children, this is not something that can be ignored. However it is an area that can be approached creatively by going beyond the limitations of Government policy on 'Gifted and Talented' and linking instead to the values and vision of Personalised Education and the ideas put forward by Gilbert (2007) in 2020 Vision.
What excited me here was the idea that by concentrating on developing the personalised learning focus at school we could enhance the education of all pupils.
Gilbert (2007) states that the aim of personalised learning has been to:
'ensure that all pupils – not just the gifted and talented or those who are having difficulties – receive one-to-one attention focused on their learning.' (p20)
Also David Milliband in the DfES (2004) document on personalised learning describes the purpose of it as a means of:
' shaping teaching around the way different youngsters learn; it means taking the care to nurture the unique talents of every pupil." (p4)
Generate rather than identify.
In reading through Freeman's recommendations on the Standards Site of the characteristics of 'Gifted and Talented' children, I am pleased to recognise most of my last year's class, some of which I have listed here as being characteristic of many of them:
This is not to suggest that Freeman's criteria are not valid, but rather to highlight the impossibility of identification itself. There are also issues for me linked to this identification.
The suggestion is that the Register will contain the names of between 5-10% of the school population, and will be flexible. Whilst this allows for children's talents and gifts being given space to develop and deals with the problem of children who are precocious rather than gifted, has anyone seriously stopped to consider what effect this would have on an individual? Assuming that knowing you are that bit more able than others is a positive feeling, what then is your state of mind when this award is removed? Not only the effect on the child, but also parents are frequently competitive and they would not quietly accept their child was no longer considered of great potential, however much we're reminded it can be a dog eat dog world out there. Isn't there a point before which we should try to protect children from harsh competition by allowing them to develop and grow at their optimum rate? To use the gardening metaphor again, we feed, nurture and enhance their growth where circumstances are less than ideal, before we put them out to face the selection and labelling process. Freeman (2004) again supports this in her statement that:
'Perhaps we have to recognise that we can never identify and measure the exact context and promise of anyone's life.' (p3) and that 'Gifts and talents can be strengthened and mobilised by encouraging a mixture of attitudes, including curiosity, persistence, and confidence, as well as the efficient use of learning strategies such as planning, monitoring and evaluation. (p4)
If life is hard for those not identified as 'Gifted and Talented', it is also a problem for those with the label. Here I indicate the effect of high expectations due to high ability on Alan Rayner (2007) and the humanly sad awareness that:
'I endured an endless round of desperately seeking reassurance that I was, after all, the person I was cracked up to be, that I really did have exceptional talents, I really had made important discoveries .... every now and then I would begin to feel reassured, but the ensuing elation would end only in the bitter disappointment of realizing that I hadn't really developed or been recognized to 'my full potential'. (p4)
Finding a Way Forward
If labelling was a living contradiction for me then the idea of educational provision good enough to develop 'gifts and talents' for all through a more individual and personalised approach began to make far more sense and felt in harmony with my own values. My belief is that every child has the right to grow in their own space and in relationship to others, to learn how to make the world work for them without being graded excessively like a factory produced item.
In reflecting on my own practice and what would constitute good learning opportunities to enhance the potential and ability of every child, I identified two issues that I felt I needed to address.
The first was my disappointment in the performance of children who knew they were 'bright' or 'clever' when they were presented with any type of challenge. The second was how to increase the performance and encourage the learning of those children who had a very low opinion of their own ability and how I could move them beyond their learned attitudes and aspirations.
Working on Mindset
In addressing these issues I found that the research by Dweck (2000, 2006) opened up a whole new area to develop in my classroom practice and helped explain the reluctance of some children to take learning risks.
. As I look at some of the designated 'more able' children I could see that many had developed a fixed mindset of their own ability and were afraid to attempt anything challenging that might destroy their image.
This is one area that I have focused on in the past year with my classes. Coming to understand Dweck's (2006) idea of 'Mindset' in my own development and observing responses from the children in the light of her theories I made a conscious decision to move away from rewarding 'good work' , turning instead to praising 'good effort' and a willingness to take up a challenge. The result has been an interesting turn in some pupils attitude to themselves and their work, enough for me to continue to emphasise the benefits of an open mindset, although I am still aware that those children who have been labelled 'bright' or 'clever' still need more time to accept that learning is more than getting it right first time without any difficulty.
Ironically, Dweck's work on having a fixed or growth mindset was a personal area of development for me. Although never portrayed in my early years as being of genius level (maybe just 'bright') I began to see that in my own life times when I'd avoided challenge for fear of failure – and that once I began to look at learning as a challenge to be confronted for the goal of learning, my own learning and understanding in many areas moved on rapidly. Naturally, if I understood how this worked in my own experience, then I would be able to use it to enhance the learning potential of my pupils.
An example of its effect is Alan, a boy in my class last year who was very good at understanding scientific ideas and made some outstanding contributions to P4C sessions. He was a fairly quiet and shy boy, not particularly good at spelling and earmarked for a low Key Stage 2 SAT result on the basis of his Key Stage 1 result. Not only was he not promising on paper but he didn't look the slightest like a 'gifted and talented' child for the Register. He had one particular quality that made all the difference however: he was willing to try and risk failure. He responded well to the praise for effort and with that gained so much confidence in himself. At the end of the year his Literacy results were a good average for his age. His developing success brings to mind Dweck's (2000)question:
'Why do we insist on trying to measure intellectual endowment and predict potential? Why can't we accept that skills can grow, abilities can blossom?' (p60)
Some of the most disappointing learners have been those who learned to read easily at infant school, or find maths easy and have been told how clever they are. They have an inability to cope with frustration or failure; they don't push themselves but avoid real learning situations. An example of this is David who would produce nothing when he could not guarantee absolute success and would revert to tantrums when he made mistakes. Gradually, with emphasis on the amount of effort he has made as being the praiseworthy aspect, and the learning being highlighted, he is beginning to relax and not see 'failure' as a personal disaster. As Dweck (2006) explains this:
'Telling children they're smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don't think this is what we're aiming for when we put positive labels – "gifted," "talented," "brilliant" – on people. We don't mean to rob them of their zest for challenge and their recipe for success. But that's the danger. (p74)
Looking at the progress from children who have been praised for hard work and been told their teacher believes in them brought me next to the 'virtuous circle' that Hymer (2007) describes as having accidentally created in one child's life.
When I came across this description it made links with several experiences in my own career. These were incidents which hadn't seemed particularly notable at the time, but with reflection I can see how they were important in forming my personal ontology. The story of Jack (Appendix 2) was one of only several, but for me, the awareness of having developed a relationship with the child was an important landmark. Without having given it real conscious thought I had developed an understanding that teaching was more than the passing on of knowledge or skills in isolation: somewhere embedded in all that had to be the contact on a human level and the exemplification of life values. Claxton (1990) describes the point I had reached:
'Whether you like it or not, how you teach and how you learn to teach are bound up with your own personality, philosophy and values. Somewhere inside there is a set of personal standards...that serve as the bench marks you will use to guide and evaluate your progress as a teacher.' ( p17)
Gradually since then I have moved towards making contact with every child in my class on an individual human level, endeavouring to make the education of each as personalised as possible. A realisation has grown that for me, working with these children in particular, and all children in general, a personal relationship is needed – maybe the need is mine, but I work best when that sense of individual is present, when I feel that link has been made between two people. And yes, I do find it easier to like some more than others, but liking isn't the issue; the important thing is to see them as developing people.
For me, every child is an individual who arrives in my classroom with strengths and weaknesses, gifts and talents. Taking our weekly school assembly recently the local vicar told the children that they were all 'stars' – and the reason they came to school was to find out what sort of star they were'. How wonderful is that idea! Isn't this what an inclusional school should be about? My role as an educator is to help each child develop their talents. My own belief is that these are latent; waiting to be given opportunity to develop in all the children, not just those who may have learned to read at an early age or can remember facts with ease and stand out as learning the school curriculum with ease and speed.
In examining the nature of being 'gifted or talented' Hymer (2007) criticises the official system which is based on test results leading to:
'The notion of two classes of children – the 'gifted or talented' who need access to a
specialised 'curriculum-plus,' and the rest – for whom a bog-standard, early
20th-century skills- and knowledge-based curriculum is more appropriate. I am
aware of no such evidence-base.' (p39)
It is understanding the nature of 'giftedness or talent' that is a fundamental issue in how we deal with the education of or the provision in school. If it were something solid we were born displaying then there would be no problem beyond the label and provision. However, if, as in my belief, these gifts and talents are in the realm of possibility and only need the right growth conditions and opportunities to develop, then it is necessary to make provision for every child, keep a positive open mind about what might be possible and be ready to catch them showing signs of talents or gifts.
Am I making my values a reality?
As I look around my classroom what evidence is there of my understanding of the nature of gifts/ talents as being something I am responsible for developing? Is it obvious that my own belief that 'gifts and talents' are not a finite quality but rather a path towards which we can all travel? What strategies have I introduced to enable every child to enjoy a stimulating and exciting curriculum which will encourage risk taking in learning, emphasise the importance of effort rather than 'success' and made it possible for any child to achieve personal successes regardless of the starting place?
Not as much as I would like is the truthful answer. There is a huge potential for development here, but ideas are growing and gradually expanding. So far in this journey all I can say is that I am clearer about my own values. The next step will be to develop the implementation of teaching strategies to reflect them. I have, however, some inkling of where I want this to go.
Introducing P4C in Literacy has been important. Originally it was because I wanted the children to develop higher levels of discussion and expand their vocabulary, believing as I do that good control of language is an advantage in achievement. Last year's group astonished me with their ability to get to grips with quite difficult concepts, and by monitoring responses I was able to watch their confidence increase. Not only this but in the SATs reading test I was impressed with how full their answers had been. Should I have been surprised? If I was living my values fully, then no. As yet my values in this area have only just begun to expand into something living.
Setting up a website (www.spanglefish.co.uk/StMichaels ) to extend the learning opportunities was another innovation that gave me glimpses of the abilities which were not obvious in the normal lessons. This is an area I intend to develop further to assist the virtuous circle.
Conclusions and final Thoughts
If part of my original stimulus was to be able to advise other members of staff on how to deal with the area of 'Gifted and Talented' education what have I learned that will translate into their already inclusive practice?
Firstly I feel that I can assure them that what they are already doing is in line with the government's aspirations for children from socially or economically deprived areas in the move to a classless society. Many of our children are handicapped by lack of language skills and resources that more affluent children would enjoy without question. Through their own generosity, willingness to give up spare time and influence on provision development the staff are already open to the possibility of developing a virtuous circle and narrowing the potential gap caused by social issues.
Then I will have to encourage them to identify every indication of a child's gifts or talents, even if this means having more than 10% of the school population on a register. As Dweck (2000) explains:
. 'I have tried to argue that we do not know what anyone's future potential is from their current behaviour. We never know exactly what someone is capable of with the right support from the environment and with the right degree of personal motivation or commitment. ' (p154)
We already provide a wide range of extra-curricular activities for children to extend their learning opportunities as well as local 'able pupil' workshops. This reinforces the conviction that all our pupils are capable of growth, and that learning should not be limited to the constraints of the National Curriculum.
In sharing our ideas and innovations about what is successful, not only for the 'brighter' children, but impacts on the learning of all the children we can work towards that exciting curriculum for all. At present there is a limited amount of time for this and it tends to be informal in passing. It promises to be an exciting area for development.
Asthana,A (2007) Gifted Pupils: too Many Are Just Ordinary. Retrieved from http://observer.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,330333566-102285,00.html 22/8/07
Claxton, G. (1990) Teaching to Learn – A Direction for Education London Cassell
Dweck, Carol S. (2000) Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Florence. Psychology Press
Dweck, C (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York Random House
DfES (2003) Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools retrieved 24/7/07 from http: / / www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/ primary/ publications/ literacy/ 63553/ pns_excell_enjoy037703v2.pdf
Miliband, D (2004) in DfES. A National Converstaion about Personalised Learning retrieved 28/7/07 from
http: / / www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/ personalisedlearning/ downloads/ personalisedlearning.pdf
DfEs (2007) Gifted and Talented retrieved from http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/giftedandtalented/ 25/7/07
DfEs (2007) Pedagogy and Personalisation retrieved 2/8/07 from http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/personalisedlearning/
Eyre, D. (2005) Speech to Conference retrieved 3/8/07 from http://www.nagty.ac.uk/NAGTYmissing.aspx?aspxerrorpath=/professional_academy/nutshells/primary.aspx
Freeman, J. (2004) Teaching the Gifted and Talented. Education Today, 54, pp17-21 retrieved 2/8/07 from http://www.joanfreeman.com/mainpages/freepapers.htm
Habermas, J. (1976) Communication and the evolution of society. London : Heinemann
Hart,S, Dixon, A, Drummond, M & McIntyre, D. (2004) Learning Without Limits. OUP Maidenhead
Hymer, B. (2007) How Do I Understand and Communicate my Values and Beliefs In My Work as an Educator in the Field of Giftedness? D.Ed.Psy. Thesis, University of Newcastle. Retrieved 3/8/07 from http://people.bath.ac.uk/edsajw/hymer.shtml
Landesman, C. (2007) Pushy Parents and Baby Geniuses. Retrieved from http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article2240433.ece on 24/8/07
McBeath, J. (2006) Study Support Makes a Difference in Study Support – a National Framework for Extending Learning Opportunities. Retrieved 11/6/07 from http://www.standards.gov.uk
Rayner, A (2007) My Achilles Heel. Testimony of a 'Gifted' Child. retrieved 22/7/07 from http://www.spanglefish.com/mariessite/index.asp?pageid=17012
QCA Guidance on Teaching the gifted and Talented Retrieved 2/7/07 from
Select Committee on Education and Employment (1999) Third Report : Highly Able Children Retrieved 2/7/07 from www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk
2020 Vision – Report of the Teaching and Learning in2020 Review Group retrieved 29/1/07 from www.teachernet.gov.uk/doc/10783/6856/DfESTeachingandLearningpdf
Wallace, B. (Ed) (2001) Teaching Thinking Skills Across the Primary Curriculum. London NACE/David Fulton
Whitehead, J & McNiff, J. (2006) Action Research Living Theory. London
Sage Publications .
All children in this school are valued for their individual strengths and abilities. Pupils with high ability or specific talents need to be recognised and provision made for them beyond the normal level of differentiation already provided by the school.
This is not only in line with the school's philosophy of enabling every child to reach their full potential, but is linked to national incentives by the DfE, Ofsted, independent educational organisations such as NACE and recent educational research.
The school aims to provide a stimulating, enriching, challenging and appropriate education for all children, including the more able. This will include access to opportunities to develop specific skills and talents or work at a higher cognitive level, whilst retaining concern for the whole child's development. We aim to celebrate ability, maintain high levels of motivation and involve the child in their own learning.
A child may be 'more able' in one or more specific area. This is not limited to high ability in Literacy or Numeracy. Identified areas include:
Academic and Intellectual
Expressive and Performing Arts
Sports and Physical
Social, Leadership and Organisation
Visual, Spatial and Mechanical
Design, Technology and ICT
More able children will be identified through a range of methods:
Teacher observation and assessment
Pupil self-evaluation and peer evaluation
National and standardised test results
Pupil performance in 'multiple intelligence' activity weeks or extra curriculum clubs
Monitoring of children's work
Comparison of how the child performs across the whole curriculum and awareness of discrepancies between the child's perceived ability and actual performance.
More able children will be helped to develop their full potential by using a variety of strategies, which might include:
Normal classroom differentiation providing more breadth in complex tasks or application of understanding to a range of contexts or those of a greater abstract nature.
Working in groups undertaking learning objectives outlined for later years.
Working on special tasks which make a higher cognitive demand – within their own age group or within a mixed age group.
Whole school 'multiple intelligence' weeks and 'Golden Clubs'
Use of higher order questioning such as those outlined in Bloom's Taxonomy.
Opportunity for more able children to reflect and evaluate their own learning.
Occasional withdrawal to work in a targeted group
Independent work where children are encouraged to set their own tasks or work with minimal support to extend ideas on their own.
Use of ICT support, specialised teachers or expert adults to extend the width and depth of learning, including APEX workshops and Summer Schools.
Teachers to have access to teaching resources designed for more able children and current educational developments.
A member of staff will be given particular responsibility for co-ordinating the identification, provision and monitoring for more able children. They will be expected to keep up to date with national initiatives, research implications and local opportunities. They will be expected to advise class teachers, organise and encourage attendance at workshops, seek out 'experts' to work in school and co-ordinate and promote staff awareness and development in more able provision. The More Able Pupil Co-ordinator will be responsible for ensuring that new members of staff receive sufficient professional development in this area.
Progress of more able pupils will often be reviewed on an informal basis, and more formally once a term.
All staff will need to be aware of the characteristics of more able children, not only those where the child performs well, but also where there is disruptive behaviour, an unwillingness to work on routine tasks or a discrepancy between the child's ability to articulate and written work. This may be achieved through whole/individual staff attendance on courses, use of staff meetings and Inset allocation, team teaching and partner professional development.
R Hurford July 2003
In Hope Of Making a Difference.
Pupils come and go over the years. Some make very little impact on your memory after a while, and yet there are some who stand out as being of some significant milestone in your own development as a teacher.
The ironic thing about life is that you can sign up for all the courses in the world, but it's often that one error, chance remark or particular circumstance that brings about a change.
One such child was a boy called Jack. He's about 25 now – a fact I remember because he was only a few months older than my own son – and maybe that was a fact that produced the right circumstances.
He was fondly nicknamed 'the professor' by staff. Jack was a very polite and pleasant boy, but also very serious for his age. These days we'd be sending him off on APEX courses to meet with other like-minded children, but back around 1990 this was still a future prospect. No-one really thought much beyond the fact he was obviously bright and slightly 'odd'.
Jack's real passion in life was Science, particularly anything dealing with animals. He hated PE, enjoyed reading and story writing and Maths was something he could live without. His level of conversation was quite adult, so that he would often spend time talking to staff rather than his own age group. The other children were rather in awe of him as if he was something special, but they weren't quite sure how to deal with his special ness when he didn't want to join in football and actually enjoyed talking to teachers.
The one subject that Jack had a real passionate interest in was dinosaurs. These were the days, of course, before topics were set out by the QCA and such initiatives as the writing project gave some opportunity for personal interests. What he could remember about the different species and data was amazing.
At that particular time my children were all fairly young, my son being about 9, his sisters just in secondary school. I had a family rail ticket, and with a sister near London, we would go off at least once a holiday to meet up and look around some famous landmark or institution. It was probably coming up for the Easter holiday when we decided to try the Natural Science Museum and see the dinosaur collection. For some reason one of my daughters was unable to come with us, so a £1 ticket was going spare.
Bumping into Jack's mum at the end of the school day I asked her (on impulse really) whether she would be agreeable to Jack joining us for the day. They were a lovely family but money was tight and trips to London were beyond the family budget. She agreed to him coming with us and the date and time set.
All this time later I can still recall Jack's arrival that morning – a good hour too early (I am not a morning person at the best of times) carrying his lunch box and unbearably excited if you'd rather still be asleep. His lunch had been eaten before we left for the station and the day went on in the same vein.
He bounced with excitement all the way on the train, so delighted was he to be on one for the first time in his life. Somehow I managed not to lose him on the underground and we got to the museum. Well, forget about a steady walk round looking at the exhibits – we had to do a double sort of look round – the first at speed so he could get a glimpse of everything, the second rather slower so we could actually look properly. It was a great day and for me full of surprises as to how other children responded to things mine were inclined to take for granted.
Jack moved on after the next year to Secondary School and I saw him only occasionally if he was on his way home.
The years passed, my son took his GCSE's and yet another year group moved on. Catching the bus into town after school one day I was getting off just as Jack was about to get on. We said hello and I walked on down the street.
Suddenly a hand touched my arm. Turning round I found Jack beaming excitedly. 'I've got my GCSE results', he told me excitedly, 'I got A in Maths and Science. I'm going on to do A' levels and I want to be a vet' I felt so pleased for him, so proud of what he'd achieved. Inside I felt a little thrill of excitement that he'd wanted to share his news with me. Many of his year group would probably have crossed the road or just recognise me as someone vaguely known in the past.
Several years after that I met up with him (in splendid 'student' mode) at the railway station. He was at University doing a science degree and was intending to do a Masters. I felt so pleased for him – that sense that he'd gone for his goal and kept at it when many of his former classmates were working at low paid jobs with no qualifications or prospects.
What made the difference? Well, I could hint that Jack's great personal motivation and enthusiasm made the difference. He probably enjoyed his trip to the museum but I doubt it made him become a student – it didn't have that effect on my son.
The important difference was something that happened to me. Not something I was aware of at the time, or had even planned but a seed that was planted and grew – the relationship with Jack that went beyond the usual formal (compared to these days) teacher/student relationship was the beginning of a real change in me and my ability to see pupils as fellow humans, not lesser beings.
When I decided to call this 'making a difference' it was not from the point of view that my input makes a difference to the students. Of course I hope that happens as well in some small way. But the differences I see most clearly are the ones that the students have brought about in me – as well as Jack there is the boy whose ability to come through difficult times smiling has stayed with me for the life and gives me the strength I sometimes need – the girl who arrived one day with a lucky horseshoe for my new flat when I was embarking on a single life – those children who have made me laugh at myself and take my place in the queue of humanity. Chris who was heard to mutter 'my money's on the register' when I asked for quiet one morning as I was 'going in'. And I doubt I shall ever forget the Down's Syndrome boy in my class doing an impression of me teaching. It was very good, the whole class roared and from the aching sides and watery eyes I wondered if my teaching style needs a little modification.
They have all made the difference. Ten years ago I would not have invited Joe to impersonate me – let alone have laughed along with the children. And yet as I've been able to peel away the layers of my 'adult sophistication' I have found underneath a confidence in my own humanity and a common point of contact with the children I teach.