“Showing up at school already able to read is like showing up at the undertaker's already embalmed: people start worrying about being put out of their jobs” (Florence King).
For Australia's gifted children and their families, this humorous quip is a harsh reality. Queensland schoolchild Gracia MalaxEtxebarria who began reading at two years of age, knows this. In 2003 at age nine, Gracia and her family took her public school to task on a complaint of age discrimination. Five years and a long legal process later, a decision in the High Court has dismissed Gracia's claim. Yet the issues felt by Gracia's family are far from unique for parents of gifted children.
The MalaxEtxebarria family first noticed their youngest daughter Gracia was gifted at age two, when father Marcos began teaching her older brother. Gracia taught herself to read using her brother's discarded materials.
“At four, my sister who is a Salvation Army Officer, said to me ‘you have to start this girl at school because she needs more formal learning’. I knew that Education QLD had regulations about starting ages, but I made the inquiry because Gracia was so keen,” wrote mother Robyn.
Despite some early misgivings from an officer who worried that Gracia would not begin menstruating along with the other girls, an assessment was carried out and Gracia was permitted to enrol in grade one aged four. “She was happy at school” says Robyn.
Robyn's story, like many told by parents of gifted children, speaks of administrative and logistical problems of educating a gifted learner within an age-based system. Parents are often forced to negotiate, and re-negotiate, programs and placements with every change in teacher. This can lead to parents being seen as problems by schools and the department itself.
After encountering problems with her school education, Mrs MalaxEtxebarria spent years homeschooling Gracia before returning her to grade six in 2003 when Gracia was just nine. Later that year it became obvious to both Gracia and her mother that she was not using her full faculties, or being understood intellectually by her classmates. A further acceleration to a local public high school was refused, forming the basis of the family's complaint against Education QLD. Mrs MalaxEtxebarria then enrolled her daughter at a private high school where Gracia blossomed academically and socially. Now 14, Gracia recently completed grade 12 and hopes to study medicine at university.
According to Jim Watters, Associate Professor in Education at Queensland University of Technology, “... it is generally accepted that around 10 to 15 per cent of children are languishing in classrooms where the level of content delivery is not challenging. There is some 1 to 2 per cent who are so intellectually advanced that they could be accelerated by two or more years”.
Of the problems regarding implementation of policy, Dr Watters cites:
- substantial lack of understanding of the concept of giftedness among administrators (and teachers) and competing priorities in school administration;
- lack of uniform, reliable and valid processes for identifying gifted students across jurisdictions;
- lack of knowledge among most teachers about effective educational practices; and
- lack of appreciation by senior administrators and policy officers of the social value of gifted students and the need to provide substantial funding to enable appropriate educational practices.
At the coal-face of supporting families with gifted children, are the state-based support groups. For these groups, the MalaxEtxebarria case is just the tip of a very large iceberg. According to Judith Hewton of the Queensland Association for Gifted and Talented Children (QAGTC), “[The Education Department] puts out policies but there is no way of forcing schools to adhere to them”.
The ultimate expression of these conflicting expectations is the complaint pursued by the MalaxEtxebarria family against the state of QLD. The case, which began back in 2003 as an age discrimination complaint heard by the QLD Anti-Discrimination Tribunal, was originally dismissed. The MalaxEtxebarria's then appealed the decision in the Supreme Court and in a hearing in October 2004, mother Robyn received the right to appeal the decision in the High Court. On September 30, 2008, in legal argument that centred on a technicality, the MalaxExtebarria's case was dismissed by the High Court.
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