The cuts that target the talented

Tue, Nov 11, 2008, 00:00

In another Budget cutback, DCU's Centre for Talented Youth has lost its State funding. This was used to help help disadvantaged kids, many of whom struggle in mainstream education, writes Gráinne Faller

DCU's Centre for Talented Youth provides a service to high ability students for whom there is no other support within mainstream education. The centre received support from the Department of Education in the form of funding - €97,000 last year. This year, thanks to the Budget, that funding has been withdrawn.

Evan Kearns had been having a lot of trouble in school. "In senior infants he'd come home upset everyday," recalls his mother Tara. "He'd say things like: 'Everybody hates me,' and he'd have huge temper tantrums - the kind you'd expect from a three-year-old."

Kearns suspected that her son might have a form of mild autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. He never liked trying new things and seemed overly sensitive to sound. His behaviour had become increasingly difficult and aggressive and he seemed to have a great desire for control in his environment.

Deciding that a diagnosis was crucial at this stage, Kearns brought Evan for a psychological assessment and braced herself for the result. It was not what she expected. "The psychologist was practically dancing around the room when we went in," says Kearns. Evan didn't have Asperger's Syndrome. As it turned out, his IQ was off the charts. He is what is known as a gifted child.

While a high IQ would seem like good news, Evan's problems at school were very real and showing no sign of abating. As ability and not disability was the root of the problem, there was no support available. "We were left in a limbo," explains Kearns. "We now knew what was causing the problems, but we had no idea what to do about it. When we went to the teacher, she just shrugged and told me he'd be fine. I went to the special needs teacher, but she told me that they don't deal with that end of the IQ scale."

In other countries, exceptional ability is accepted as a special educational need. Gifted children can develop behavioural problems in school, they may have difficulty socialising with their peers. They may underachieve, lack motivation and be inattentive. In other words, they can have huge difficulties in school, just like children with more readily acknowledged special needs.

Here in Ireland this is not recognised however, and parents can have huge trouble trying to cater for their children.

Shirley Williams-Webster's seven-year-old son Joshua is also gifted. She feels awkward talking about it to other parents and teachers. "I don't tell most people I know about Joshua's ability. I feel they see it as boasting. They wonder why I think he needs extra help when he can already do things," she explains. "I find the attitude of people in Ireland towards gifted children to be shockingly negative."

Indeed this is a sentiment echoed by many parents of gifted children. "It's almost taboo," says Patricia Kinsella, mother of two gifted children. "If a child is intelligent, it is assumed that they will be fine."

All the same, parents who force the matter risk being labeled as "pushy". "I don't care if Joshua is a street sweeper or a neurosurgeon," says Williams-Webster. "I just want him to happy."

Tara Kearns eventually decided to move Evan, who is now seven years old, to a private school. "Evan was just constantly getting into trouble because he was bored," says Kearns. "At least in the new school the classes are smaller and the teachers seem better equipped to deal with him. He loves it." Around the same time, Kearns heard about the Centre for Talented Youth in DCU.

The Centre for Talented Youth of Ireland (CTYI) has been operating for 15 years. It currently provides classes and summer programmes for high ability children between the ages of six and 16 years of age At the moment, it caters for about 4,000 students.

Director of the centre Colm O'Reilly says that this is scraping the surface. "We're trying to target the top five per cent of students. If you look at the people who go on to university - they're the top 10 per cent. Half of them are probably gifted," he explains. "A lot of these students go unidentified."

Often, the gifted student is not the one with straight As at the top of the class, so CTYI identifies candidates by means of an aptitude test. Abilities vary widely. Some students have a strength in a particular area. Others are all-rounders. Somewhat surprisingly, a full 15 per cent of the centre's students have a learning difficulty as well as being very able. "Quite a few of our students are diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, dyslexia, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. Just because a child has a learning disability, doesn't mean that they can't be gifted in another way," O'Reilly explains.

After Evan had been offered a place in a CTYI, the list of course options arrived in the Kearns household. "Evan devoured the list," Kearns laughs. "In the end, he settled on astronomy."

The younger children are offered Saturday classes as well as week-long summer programmes. From the age of 13, children are eligible for three-week residential summer programmes. The idea, according to O'Reilly is to challenge them in different ways but also to give them a social outlet.

"Some 600 children come to us on a Saturday," he explains. "These are normal children who happen to be exceptionally able. We try to challenge them - to show them that you need to work to achieve.

"They meet each other. If you are a seven-year-old who is very verbally talented, you may not be able communicate properly with your peers. You start to feel left out. But then you come here and you meet people who are just like you. It makes a huge difference."

Children come from all sorts of backgrounds. The DCU Access Service has been particularly effective at identifying talented youngsters from disadvantaged communities. While the courses are not free by any means, there has been a hardship fund for students whose families may not be able to afford the fees. The centre charges fees to pay staff, but it operates in a non-profit making capacity. The loss of €97,000, then, will hit hard.

"This money enables us to keep costs as low as possible and to help families who encounter hardship," says O'Reilly. "It's €97,000. That's nothing to the Department. It's a lot to us. I honestly don't know what we're going to have to cut back on. We are now getting no support from the Department of Education. It seems ridiculous when we're trying to build a Knowledge Economy."

Knowledge economy aside, the centre is providing a service to parents and young people for whom there is nothing else in the system. Tara Kearns can't believe the change in her son since he started attending CTYI. It is fully worth the journey from Cavan to Dublin as far as she's concerned. "He absolutely loves it," she says. "He's excited about going and animated when he comes out. I feel tears welling up when I think about it. My child is back."

FACT FILE: Centre for Talented Youth

Mission:To identify high ability students and provide programmes for them together with support services for their parents and teachers.

Established:1992,

Courses:CTYI provides Saturday, Wednesday, summer and correspondence courses for high ability students aged six to 16 years.

Where:Course venues include Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Athlone, Letterkenny, Waterford, Galway, Enniscorthy and Tralee.

Cost:Ranges from €160 for a five day summer course for young children to €1,500 for a three-week residential course for teens.

• Almost 31,000 students have participated in CTYI programmes since 1992.

• Courses range from aeronautical engineering to corporate business and students sit an aptitude assessment that qualifies them for admission to the courses.

• The centre did receive funding from the Department of Education. The €97,000 it received last year consisted of about 10 per cent of its total operating costs. Now the funding has been withdrawn.

See www.dcu.ie/ctyi

IS YOUR CHILD GIFTED?

According to the Centre for Talented Youth gifted children demonstrate a range of characteristics which often set them apart from their peers. If you think your child may be exceptionally able then check out these general character traits. Remember all children are different and may be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. This list is useful in that it can be used as a possible indicator of talent. In other words, its a good starting point, if you feel your child may be fall into the gifted spectrum. If you find yourself ticking many of these boxes then maybe you should considered having your child assessed.

• Keen powers of observation

• Learned to read very early, often before school age

• Reads widely and rapidly

• Well developed vocabulary - takes delight in using unusual and new words

• Has great intellectual curiosity

• Absorbs information rapidly - often called "sponges"

• Very good memory - can recall information in different circumstances

• Have to ability to concentrate deeply for prolonged periods

• Very good powers of reasoning and problem solving

• Have intense interests

• Possess unusual imagination.

• Have a great interest in "big" questions, eg the nature of the universe, of suffering in the world, environmental issues

• Very sensitive - perhaps getting upset easily

• Very concerned about rights and wrongs, concerned about injustices

From www.giftedkids.ie

A CHANCE TO SHINE

Donncha Conwayis studying law in TCD. From Waterford, he attended CTYI's residential courses in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

"Going to CTYI was a life-changing experience for me. I was never a freak child. I wouldn't have been like Rain Man, counting matches in the corner, but I suppose I was above average in school.

"At the start of secondary school, the vice-principal gave out some leaflets about CTYI with the assessment forms to a couple of us.

"I did the assessment and was offered a place on one of the residential courses. Over the three years I studied journalism, creative writing and psychology. The courses were great, but, really, the courses are only about 40 per cent of the reason that anyone goes to CTYI. For most of us it's mainly about meeting people you have so much in common with.

"There's a huge camaraderie there. People have different abilities and talents, but everyone is of above average intelligence. We would have had fairly similar experiences of school and life in general.

"It's really difficult to talk about all this stuff without seeming full of yourself. It's not as though I was always conscious of a difference between me and my friends - not at all. In fact, a couple of my friends qualified for places in CTYI and chose not to accept them. But when I got to CTYI, I felt like I could let my ability come to the fore without being embarrassed about it. I could use words like 'extrapolate' without sounding like an ass. I was never conscious of holding back and not using words like that at home, but I think it's just something you do subconsciously.

"It was massively important to me. Everyone who goes there comes away with more confidence. If I hadn't gone to CTYI I don't think Id be the same person today."