An Interview with Barry Meatyard: Gifted in England

Aug 16, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Barry, first of all, what is your exact title, and what exactly do you do in terms of being a consultant?

My academic title is Dr. Barry Meatyard – I was formerly a plant scientist and then became a teacher in two high performing selective independent schools in England. In 1993 I became a member of staff at the University of Warwick working on a variety of science and teacher education programmes. As an admissions tutor I became interested in how students are prepared for life in a top rated university like Warwick, and my ‘G&T journey’ developed. For 5 years (2002-7) I was a Director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) based at the university and which was a flagship of the then English government’s national programme for G&T. I now run my own education consultancy business.

My current work is focused on supporting both schools and teachers in implementing strategies for nurturing and supporting G&T students, but I also like to ‘get back into the classroom’ from time to time so that I can keep in touch with student thinking. The main focus of my work is on science, but I also work generically across the curriculum. My time is divided between commitments to training programmes and workshops in the UK and internationally.

2) How are gifted identified in England, or are they referred to as “highly able “?

This is a tough one! The history of the English government’s approach to G&T is one of regular major change both in terms of policy and delivery. The current terminology is ‘more able’ and schools are advised that they should be identifying and providing for such students. However, it is for the school to decide on the criteria although there are various bits of (now mostly historical) guidance on government websites. As a guide, my advice would be to start to look for behaviours and thinking styles that are characteristic of what we might call ‘expertise’ in an adult. My own approach, which is based upon 40 years experience working in education (during which I have taught many students much brighter than me!) and, particularly, during my NAGTY years, is to not get too hung up on diagnosing ‘giftedness’, but rather to focus on structures within schools and pedagogical approaches that encourage (or even create) giftedness. In this, I guess, I am an advocate of the ‘human and social capital approach’ to giftedness. I have just attended the World Council conference in Prague and I find it illogical, although perhaps not surprising, that so many countries and agencies are still obsessed with identification, by some supposedly concrete measure or the other, of the ‘top 5%’ or some other arbitrary value. 5% of what I have to ask?

Mathematicians? Scientists? Bee keepers? ‘Giftedness’ expresses itself in a wide range of domains and we do our education systems and our children a great disservice if we just focus on the top 5% of those who can do this test or that test. Reliance on any single criterion seems to me to be totally indefensible. We should be concentrating our energies instead on what classroom provision that encourages and promotes giftedness for all children should look like. That discussion interests me greatly since it is the focus of much of my work. As a biologist I am not entirely convinced by concrete genetic arguments for giftedness – and genetics was a major component of my PhD.

As a diversion: In my work, both internationally and in the UK, I frequently ask teachers to think of the brightest student(s) that they have ever taught and ask them to explain why they think that. From a sample of well over 2,000 teachers the answers are remarkably constant (across many different education systems and national cultures) and focus on behaviours rather than any measured level of attainment. In fact, I think that I can only remember 2 occasions on which a response has been ‘they got top marks in their tests’. I think this tells us that teachers worldwide hold a model of giftedness in their heads that cannot necessarily be defined by summative measures. One of my best students ever failed spectacularly to get ‘top marks’ – mainly because we weren’t asking him questions in his specific field of interest and expertise. He is now one of the world’s leading experts in his field – the same in which he started to exhibit adult levels of expertise as a 14 year old student. But would he have been ‘diagnosed’ as gifted by the usual tests? Probably not.

3) Do you deal with OFSTED or is that not part and parcel of your work?

I do not deal with OFSTED directly, although one of my close colleagues is an ex-OFSTED inspector. However, as a governor of a secondary (11-18) school in my home town, and as a professional practitioner, I need to keep my finger on the pulse of the educational priorities of OFSTED.

4) In many countries in Europe, they practice acceleration, and in others, enrichment. Which do you prefer and why?

On balance I would say enrichment. I think of the differences as comparing a journey on a high speed train that gets you from A to B as quickly as possible with little opportunity to understand what that journey has taken you past, with a slower journey in which you have time to stop, divert, explore, wonder at, and understand, the surrounding countryside. Carefully constructed enrichment, which allows for these meanderings, is the only way in which the true depth and breadth of a subject can be explored in a wide range of different contexts and lead to the development of deep expertise. Acceleration has to be managed very carefully – and thought must be given to what happens in the future (beyond the initial acceleration phase) before proceeding. There are many case histories of students who have gone on to do (usually maths) degrees at very precocious ages – and many examples of disastrous comings off of wheels amongst these. The emotional needs of children have to be satisfied if they are to develop as balanced and well rounded individuals. English universities are now very nervous about, for example, enrolling a 12 year old to do a maths degree. The needs and development of the whole child must therefore be taken into account – otherwise there is thin ice that may get broken.

5) What about mentoring? Are there formal or informal programs set up? Who runs them?

Mentoring covers a range of relationships between teachers (and other adults) and students, and between students and students, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. My own view is that as provision for students becomes more sophisticated it should include contact and guidance involving increasing access to adult expertise and the world in which it operates. I was doing that back in the early 1970s. Therefore, ‘mentoring’ needs to be flexible and responsive to the needs of individuals. Initially this starts in school – and all students in English schools will have a tutor, although there is inevitably a wide range of practice and, dare I say, competencies. But as a child’s expertise develops it is logical to involve outside adult support – for example, from industry or academia, and in schools that support needs to be managed by a senior member of staff.

6) Who would you say are some of the leaders in England?

I would have to say that Deborah Eyre is probably one of the clearest thinkers at the national strategic level, but there are many others who have contributed to both the debate and to practice. To single out the leaders does a disservice to many excellent practitioners who are working in their own schools and school partnerships to establish provision and strategy at both local and regional level. The organisations with a long track record, such as London G&T that is led by Ian Warwick and his team, are also doing very interesting work, and a number of other regional agencies in England are doing likewise.

7) What are the main social and emotional needs of the gifted and how do the teachers meet them?

I’m not sure that the social and emotional needs of the gifted are that much different from any other defined group of children. I’m the father of two daughters, both of whom I could make a case for as being gifted in their own ways, although in very different domains, and I learned that their social and emotional needs were both very individual and time related. At NAGTY part of my job involved commissioning non-academic support for our students (nominally the national top 5%). We ran a wide variety of on-line forums and discussion groups for G&T students, and if you were to take a look at what was being discussed a lot of it boiled down to teenage culture – the latest pop stars, reality TV shows, soap operas and the like. However, every now and then a discussion would pop up on Wittgenstein or Chomsky, which was always reassuringly refreshing! Virtual environments can work well in this respect but the most valued of NAGTY experiences (and this is also true for other gifted programmes) was, and is, the face to face elements of summer schools and live lecture and seminar events. The over-riding impression was that students were relieved that there were other like-minded young people out there. I guess that this underlines how the most basic human need of feeling part of a social group is played out by students in schools who feel that they are in a minority of 1. This is partly why I think that we should be focusing on developing creativity and giftedness (if that’s what we must call it) in all school classrooms, rather than labelling a child as gifted and immediately setting them aside from the rest. However, as the child develops on his or her expertise journey it is inevitable that increased contact with children of similar interests and abilities, as well as the adults referred to above, is both desirable and appropriate.

8) Do you have a web site or are there web sites you can refer us to in order to gain more information?

I don’t maintain my own website, but I can be contacted via my e-mail address at bmconsultancy@tiscali.co.uk and I’m on LinkedIn.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Anything that I may have alluded to in my digressions above!

By the way in my spare time I climb mountains, row at Warwick Boat Club, enjoy bird watching and plant hunting – and I play the mandolin – but not necessarily at a standard you would call gifted.

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