Now in year 9 at a public high school in the inner west, Alex is benefiting from the NSW High Potential and Gifted Education Policy, which took effect on the first day of this term.
The new policy, announced last June, means all public schools across NSW must demonstrate how they identify and cater for students who have high potential or are gifted.
The policy specifically applies not just to high achievers but also to students such as Alex who are gifted learners with a disability, also known as “twice-exceptional” or “2e”, a group that has been traditionally underserved by mainstream education.
Disability in this context includes learning differences such as dyslexia (which affects reading), dysgraphia (writing) and dyscalculia (maths) and neurodiverse conditions such as autism and ADHD.
Geraldine Townend, a lecturer and research fellow specialising in 2e students at the University of NSW, said it was “amazing” that the government’s policy was one of the first globally to mandate gifted education and specifically include gifted learners with disability.
The traditional way of identifying gifted students was to look at their achievement, but this overlooked students with hidden potential, she said.
Dr Townend said twice-exceptional students need both learning support and enrichment or extension to reach their potential, and supporting the disability in the classroom was essential to level the playing field.
“It’s like giving a wheelchair to a child who cannot walk or glasses to a child who needs glasses,” she said.
Dr Townend said appropriate extension for gifted children was “not a matter of giving them extra worksheets” but ensuring there are outlets for their ability, including grouping them with other students of similar ability or grade or subject acceleration.
After spending year 8 in a class for special-needs students, where he found it hard to concentrate, Alex is now moving into a class for gifted and high-potential students for year 9. He said he feels motivated to do well because the school has recognised his intelligence.
For his mother, Pru Wirth, it is a big relief to see Alex’s needs finally being met, after he developed behavioural issues and anxiety at primary school and showed signs of disengaging in years 7 and 8.
She hopes the policy will help schools see that twice-exceptional students are not a problem but can do well if supported appropriately.
An Education Department spokesperson said schools had a responsibility to address the diversity of students with high potential or who are gifted, including those with a disability.
In what is thought to be a first for Australian government schools, the department is partnering with the University of Wollongong to study the prevalence of high-potential and gifted students with disabilities and use the research to inform the implementation of the policy.
Schools are already required to take “reasonable steps” to ensure students with disability are able to participate in courses or programs on the same basis as other students, under the Disability Standards for Education 2005.
However, as The Sun-Herald reported in December, fewer than one in five of the state’s 165,000 accredited teachers have taken a course on teaching students with disabilities in the past three years.
One primary school teacher, who asked to be anonymous to protect her employment, said her university degree left her ill-equipped to teach students with disabilities and she was struggling to find quality training.
For the new gifted policy, the department is taking a direct role in training teachers and key staff at each school. The spokesperson said there would be professional learning delivered in stages over four years.
The spokesperson said the department was also working towards making the selection process for opportunity classes in year 5 and selective schools in year 7 fairer for gifted students with disabilities.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.