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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26590

Senator TIERNEY (6:09 PM) —Given the time constraints, I also seek leave to incorporate my speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I rise today to discuss the education of talented and gifted children in Australia.

As an educator in a previous lifetime, who has taught many gifted children, I must confess that I find it difficult to contain my enthusiasm for the subject of the education of the gifted.

This weekend I will be addressing the 10th Conference of the Australian Association of Education for the Gifted and Talented in Melbourne.

The President of AAEGT, Dr Sue Vasilevska will host a conference for around 300 delegates including state education departments, catholic and independent school authorities, primary and secondary teachers and academics.

In October 2000, I established a Senate Inquiry into The Education of Gifted Children. The unanimous report covering 20 recommendations was presented to the Senate in October 2001.

During the Inquiry, the Senate Committee considered 279 submissions made by government and non-government school authorities, interest groups, professional associations, schools, academics and individuals.

All submissions to the Inquiry agreed that many gifted students are not being catered for in the mainstream education system and these students need to be considered as a priority.

Most worryingly, the 2001 Report found that there had been little progress in educational provision for gifted children since the previous 1988 Senate Select Committee report on this subject.

As a result, the needs of many gifted children are not met in the classroom resulting in boredom, frustration, physiological distress and underachievement. As a result, some children's potential is ignored because they `act up' at school or have learnt to hide their abilities to fit in with a peer group.

And these are the children who love to learn.

We often rely on parents to take control of their gifted child's identification and education. This is more difficult for parents and children from less advantaged backgrounds.

We must remember that gifted children are found in all socio-economic and ethnic groups.

A focus on identification in schools is most important for these children who may lack a wide range of support outside school.

It is not an easy task for classroom teachers who may not have previously received specialist training in gifted education and are faced with the day-to-day issues of managing classes.

The task is additionally complex for teachers because of the range of abilities among gifted children. Not all gifted children are the same.

Very few education faculties in Australia have lecturing staff with gifted education post-graduate qualifications. This means that relatively few student teachers receive adequate pre-service training in gifted education.

Evidence provided to the Senate Inquiry suggests that the majority of Australian teachers currently have only the most limited knowledge of how to identify and respond to gifted and talented students and I am delighted that Coalition has made this a high priority in the recent funding announcements for gifted education.

One of the most disturbing findings of the Inquiry was the low priority State Education Authorities gave to inservice education in general and gifted inservice in particular.

Training and in-service in gifted education can significantly increase teachers' effectiveness.

Given that the schools decided their own inservice priorities and given the scarcity of resources, the committee concluded from the evidence that gifted education rarely got a look-in.

It is quite possible that the majority of teachers in Australia have not had even one hour of gifted preservice or inservice education.

Teachers untrained in this area tend not to distinguish between potential and performance, and tend to miss underachievers, divergent thinkers, visual-spatial learners, and children who mask their ability.

Untrained teachers are also more likely to see giftedness in well-behaved children of the dominant culture (middle-class Anglo-Celtic or Asian students), and less likely to see it in disadvantaged groups (e.g., gifted students from low socio-economic areas, rural communities, non-English speaking backgrounds and Indigenous communities).

I've often heard it suggested that gifted education is not as much of a priority as education for students with learning difficulties because the gifted students will get though in the end. Some children might `get by in the end' but this kind of comment ignores the large amount of research showing underachievement and de-motivation among gifted children Submissions to the Senate Inquiry highlighted the particular problems and difficulties faced by gifted students and their parents in rural and isolated areas. In more remote areas, there may be no choice of schooling and fewer services for families and teachers as in metropolitan areas.

As we know, potential for learning is not enough. It is not enough that we merely identify children as gifted if their potential is not then nurtured and assisted.

There may be many children of great potential remaining unnoticed in classrooms. For these students the pace and level of the regular classroom is not challenging and they are merely learning to see education as something dull and unrewarding.

We have a duty to help all children reach their potential.

This is not just because of some perceived benefit to Australia overall, although this is a factor, but for the sake of these children's own health and well-being.

The Senate Report made 20 recommendations covering the role of teachers in identifying gifted children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Significantly, the call was made for a national approach to this issue and the Australian Government answered this call to the tune of $3.2 million for a series of national initiatives.

As part of this $3.2 million national response to the needs of gifted students, the Australian Government will provide:

$300,000 for the preparation this year of a professional learning package to help teachers and school leaders recognise and respond to gifted children in the classroom, including gifted students from minority and disadvantaged groups.

The package will include strategies to identify gifted students and incorporate a range of valuable intervention strategies to address the needs of gifted students, such as modification of curriculum, accelerated learning or ability groupings.

A further $2 million will be provided to assist jurisdictions in implementing the professional learning package during 2005;

$340,000 through which grants of $10,000 will be made available during 2005 to education faculties without any lecturing staff with specialist qualifications in gifted education. These grants will help education faculties nurture skills in gifted education by assisting a staff member in each education faculty to gain specialist qualifications in gifted education.

$550,000 to help parents in regional Australia understand and meet the needs of their gifted children via information sessions and workshops to be held around the country. Up to 50 regional and remote workshops will be conducted for parents, teachers and academics.

Unlike the Coalition Government, the previous federal Labor government saw no role for the federal government and sadly for the gifted, their families and this nation, many parliamentarians have an ideological objection to special programs for the gifted, opting instead for a comprehensive, inclusive approach to education.

Parliamentarians aside, fortunately there has been greater recognition, in the field and in the community generally, of the need to provide specially gifted students, the seed stock that will enable our society to bloom and thrive.

At present it is far too easy for gifted students in our school system to slip through the cracks and have their potential unrecognised. Research has shown that many talented fail to reach their potential and just drop out of school if not physically, certainly intellectually and often emotionally. We need to stop this in its tracks and support the needs of gifted children.

The Government has recognised that it has a vital role to play in education of gifted children and their teachers. This is a far cry from the situation I encountered when I first entered the Senate in 1989.

At that time the government of the day did not sere that the Federal Government had any role in gifted children.

However, the Coalition has now put the Education of Gifted children firmly on the national agenda.

Gifted children are the bright sparks that are needed to ignite our information economy and its supporting culture. Australia will be a duller star in the firmament of nations if our small poppies are not provided with the right conditions to shine.

Senate adjourned at 6.09 p.m.