Should I Send My Child to an Opportunity Class?
All government schools in Australia have a responsibility to identify gifted and talented children and provide opportunities to optimise their education. But right now in New South Wales, many public primary school parents are considering whether to apply for their child to attend an Opportunity Class during years 5 and 6. And parents have much more to contemplate than their child’s academic environment.
Gifted and Talented Primary Classrooms
Each Australian State varies in its delivery of programs to meet the needs of gifted and talented primary school students. In the Northern Territory, ACT, South Australia and Tasmania, no selective classes are offered; instead, gifted and talented policies are in place to support students, allowing early entry to school and the development of individual learning plans. Western Australia offers a part-time extension and academic program for gifted and talented students. And New South Wales is the only State that provides dedicated classes – the Opportunity Class (OC) - for gifted and talented students within mainstream primary campuses.
What is the Opportunity Class?
Opportunity Classes are designed to cater for the needs of academically gifted students in Years 5 and 6 in NSW, and are available within some government schools. One of the main aims of placement of a student in an OC, is to prepare gifted upper primary students for suitable academic pathways in secondary and university education. Academic benefits to students flow from access to a more challenging curriculum and interaction with students of similar abilities; Opportunity Classes were established to allow gifted students to achieve their potential by providing an environment, resources and learning opportunities that meet their particular educational needs.
Social and Emotional Implications of Joining an Opportunity Class
Information is available from a variety of sources about the academic benefits of a differentiated curriculum for gifted students; examples of sources are the NSW Association for Gifted and Talented Children and the Gifted Education Research Resource and Education Centre ( GERRIC). But considering a child’s temperament and social and emotional wellbeing is another important aspect of the decision to send a student to an OC. Helen Dudeney, consultant at the Australian Gifted Support Centre says families are thinking about many more factors when deciding if the move to an Opportunity Class will benefit their child. Dudeney says the school environment, the new teacher, the child’s personality, and the family’s capacity to support their child through an initial period of change are all significant considerations.
Parents making a decision with their child about placement in an Opportunity Class may wish to talk about the following:
Relocating to a New School
Only 75 government schools in New South Wales offer Opportunity Classes, so many children have to relocate to a new school to participate – sometimes that school will be outside the student’s local area.
The prospect of changing schools may be exciting for some children – particularly if they are not enjoying their current school for social or academic reasons. But for other children who have firm friends and enjoy their school experience, changing schools can be a source of anxiety, and parents may have to consider and manage their child’s concerns about a new school. For example, in some cases, parents choose to keep a gifted child in a mainstream school to reap the social benefits and potential leadership opportunities that come from being known and familiar with their current school in the senior primary years.
For a student who is yet to find a like-minded school friend, moving to a class of gifted and talented children might give them a new opportunity to find peers of a similar mental age. Dr Miraca Gross, Professor of Gifted Education in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales says that many gifted children find it difficult to meet other children with similar expectations of friendship: “Gifted children tend to reach the final stage of friendship expectations years ahead of average ability children, thus causing social isolation and the need for a true friend.” Dr Gross explains that gifted children are often ready to seek more from their friendships than other children of the same age; for example, when other children their age are looking for someone to play with or chat to, a gifted child of the same age may be looking to form more sophisticated and complex relationships - friendships with shared empathy, trust and safety. And Helen Dudeney says attending an OC Class, “could be the first time they find a friend of the same age who gets them, who likes them, and who they look forward to catching up with.”
Many mainstream school classrooms in New South Wales do provide the acceptance and valuing of giftedness that some students require – parents of gifted children in those schools may therefore find a move to an OC is not required. However, an Opportunity Class is intended to provide a classroom experience where a specialist teacher is resourced to provide an optimal learning environment, where being academically gifted is explicitly valued. Sometimes gifted children in a mixed ability classroom can be left feeling bored waiting for other students to catch up, or may suffer from low self-esteem if they feel too different from their peers. Placing children in a classroom environment where their intellectual difference is valued and rewarded can lead to children learning to accept and value their differences, instead of ignoring or denying them, says psychologist Lesley Sword, Director of Gifted & Creative Services Australia. Sword says that