Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Irish Talent Development Programmes

A recent online discussion caught my eye and got me thinking about the idea of “talent development” in Ireland. The discussion centred on the opinion of a teenage blogger that by participating in the CTYI summer programme in DCU many young people became arrogant about their intelligence. The post was roundly criticised by many former CTYI students who took issue with the blanket accusations therein. The young man in question had taken part in the three-week residential course last summer. The post touched on all sorts of gripes, from elitism, to labeling, to nature versus nurture to questioning the criteria for entry to the programme. It was quite a rant, designed for maximum impact! The responses from other teenagers who had gone to CTYI were predictably articulate, passionate and well written. Most of them conceded that there are some arrogant teens among the two hundred or so on each course, but rejected the assertion in the blogpost that all of them are arrogant about their intelligence or became so as a result of attending CTYI. But what really piqued my interest were the comments from some adults:

“These kids lack social skills”

“Their parents put them on a pedestal”

“Everyone is equally gifted in their own way” (italics mine)

“The idea of ‘needing’ to be surrounded by those who have similar academic qualities to yourself is is simply intellectual snobbery, and the less of it there is the better.”

And this gem, which is no doubt familiar to many of us who work to dispel the myths surrounding giftedness;

“I suspect you’d do a lot more for the ‘gifted’ students by addressing their deficits rather than focusing on their already exceptional abilities.”

So, I thought I’d do a little research into other “talent development” programmes in Ireland and see what differences there were in their entry criteria. I wanted to open up some dialogue on the attitudes of adults, parents, teachers and students into their benefits. It was easy to find information on various national squads for sports, and for entry into music academies. It was difficult to find any opinion on whether these programmes are a negative for the participants however, so I had to dig a little deeper! I trawled various social media in Ireland for any trace of opinion either positive or negative on these specialist academies but found none. A very unscientific bit of research on Twitter is ongoing, results to follow!

Tennis Ireland has in its Criteria for Team and Representative Selection what they call the “future potential factor” in choosing their national squad for training at junior level. National squads under Swim Ireland must reach qualifying times in designated swim meets in order to qualify for inclusion in their elite training programme. In rugby, Ireland’s clubs and schools take on player development at younger ages, then the province academies take over when player potential has been established through participation at highest school levels. The Royal Irish Academy of Music hold auditions to determine potential in their admittance procedure, and all new entrants must pass an exam at the end of their first (probationary) year to retain their place.

I would imagine that all the children and young people who reach the standards required for these elite programmes are pretty talented and very committed. I am certain that we have in Ireland some very gifted young tennis players, swimmers and musicians. It is a tribute to those involved in these organisations that we can offer to our young citizens the specialised training that can support their talents and set them on the road to achievement. I also think that the parents of these gifted young people deserve huge praise for supporting them, driving them to training, matches, swim meets and concerts or buying them equipment, uniforms and instruments. I would be surprised if the parents would be regarded as pushy or delusional about their child’s talent. I think they would be quietly admired for their dedication! I doubt too many people would disagree with me and say that these programmes should not exist and we should caution against letting these children know how talented they are for fear of making them arrogant. I am pretty certain that not many would think that this kind of training is elitist and has no place in an egalitarian Ireland. I think most people, like myself would consider any government funds well spent in ensuring that these young people might one day represent Ireland proudly.

So, back to the Irish Centre for Talented Youth. This programme also requires people to qualify in order to take part, by sitting a test which measures their “future potential” much like Tennis Ireland, and by scoring above a certain point similar to Swim Ireland’s qualifying times. The teenagers whose intellectual ability qualifies them to take part in these programmes are no different than those whose musical or sporting ability allows them access to elite training in their field. So why does it seem to matter so much to some adults that CTYI exists and that the kids who attend are exceptionally bright? Why are they offended by the very idea of CTYI while accepting of other programmes offering elite training for sporting or musical talent? Our children are all different, they have all manner of talents which can be nurtured and developed with proper support. Some will reach the top of their talent pool, others will be content to achieve a more modest level, still others will not develop their talents because a support system was unavailable for them. Not all of the children who participate in these programmes will go on to win Olympic medals, Nobel prizes or join prestigious orchestras. Most of them won’t. But does that mean we shouldn’t even provide them the chance to see how far their ability takes them? Does it mean we should desist from trying to identify those who may have talent? Of course not, Ireland needs all kinds of talents to recover its strength, from modest to mind-blowing! If we can agree that tennis players, swimmers, rugby players, violinists, scientists and writers do not emerge fully formed from the womb, but rather with a potential which becomes apparent as physical maturity and opportunity arise, why can some not accept that all these various talents or gifts should be supported and encouraged whether they be physical, musical or academic?

Scroll back up the page to the quoted comments about CTYI and the kids who participate for a moment. Now reread them with our young high potential athletes and musicians in mind (you may have to replace a few words with ‘sporting’ or ‘musical’ but you get the idea). We shouldn’t allow our talented young violinists get together for orchestra training , that would be ‘musical snobbery’? We should identify our young swimmers weaknesses and get them out of the pool to improve them? They are so focused on their ‘ability’ and training at all hours of the day and night that they have social skills deficits which are far more important than their progress in tennis or flute? We should concentrate on making ‘well-rounded’ individuals instead of ‘one-dimensional’ achievers in tennis? I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds pretty ridiculous. How can young people be expected to reach the highest levels of ability without spending the time needed to develop the talent they have inside?

The original piece was just a teenage shot across the bow of a boat carrying some other teenagers. He went to CTYI, didn’t enjoy it for whatever reason and is doing something different this summer. Maybe he should have left it at that. The young people who go to CTYI in the summer should be able to do so without fear of misplaced criticism from the rest of us. The young people who spend their summers playing tennis tournaments aren’t generally pilloried for spending all that time getting better at their chosen activity. Let them all go enjoy their learning. Let them all act like teenagers. They will grow up as we all eventually do. And then there will still be pretty much the same percentage of arrogant ‘eejits’ as there always is, trust me!

All the same, I quite enjoyed the delicious irony of a teenage blogger basking in the glory of grown-up readers telling him he was absolutely spot on in accusing a bunch of other teenagers of being arrogant!


  1. Well said and applicable to gifted programs around the world. Obviously, this young blogger has finally received the attention he has been longing for by posting these comments. Hopefully, Irish parents of gifted children will continue to work together to dispel these myths so well rooted in Ireland's national psyche.

  2. id like to just saw that i have attended CTYI every summer from 2009 on-wards and i have never once seen or heard anyone who wasn't welcome. every person who comes to CTYI is always welcomed with open arms and if they don't enjoy the course they are doing other CTYIzens (what we call ourselves) have no trouble helping them to enjoy it. I think the article you have written is brilliant and i wish more people could read it so they can understand. We don't go up to DCU just to study a third level course for 3 weeks, we go there so we can be ourselves, have a bit of fun and to make friends. the most important part of the courses is social interaction and it helps some shy people finally open up and grow up.