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Socialising with like-minded peers: the importance of friendships to students at National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) summer schools

Stephen M. Cullen

Mairi-Ann Cullen

Geoff Lindsay

Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR), University of Warwick.

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005

Address for Correspondence:
Dr Stephen Cullen, CEDAR, The University of Warwick, COVENTRY, CV4 7AL.

1. Introduction

1.1 NAGTY Summer Schools

The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY) offers a range of services and opportunities for its student members, such as online forums and study groups, and local face to face events. However, the Academy’s flagship events are its summer schools, held at universities throughout England during July and August. The summer schools were piloted at the university of Warwick in 2002. Following that pilot, summer schools have been held in 2003, 2004, and 2005. The numbers of courses, known as strands, and universities involved have increased over this period, so that by the summer of 2005, eight universities ran NAGTY summer schools – Bristol, Christ Church Canterbury, Warwick, Leeds, Durham, Lancaster, York, and Imperial College – offering 53 strands between them. The strands cover a wide range of academic disciplines, including subjects not typically encountered at school, such as anthropology and robotics. Each strand is usually led by an academic specialist in the field, supported by a qualified teacher and one or two post-graduate teaching assistants. Around 18-22 NAGTY students attend each strand, and universities offer from 6-8 strands per summer school, with the majority of schools running for two weeks, and some running for three. Over 1,000 students attended a NAGTY summer school in 2005 alone.

The summer schools are open to all NAGTY members, aged 11-16, although some strands operate a more restricted age entrance requirement, often 14-16, usually as a result of laboratory safety requirements. Candidates can be nominated by their schools, or they can nominate themselves. They are expected to have shown an active interest in NAGTY activities, for example, by taking part in the online study groups. In allocating places at the summer schools, NAGTY places an emphasis on the candidates’ application statements, requiring students to demonstrate:

  • ‘The ability to show commitment to the course selected through provision of clear reasons for choice.

  • How participation in Summer School will help them in their overall personal learning/social development.

  • A willingness to contribute positively to a community-focused residential programme, both academic and social.’

  • ( http://www.nagty.ac.uk/student_academy/summer_schools )

    Summer school fees were, in 2005, £550 for a two week course, and £710 for a three week course. The expectation is that a student’s school or LEA will contribute towards this cost, although there is no obligation on either body to do so. In addition, NAGTY offers means-tested bursaries, of up to £310 for the two week schools, and £390 for the three week schools, for students.

    Although the academic element of the summer schools is of central importance, NAGTY stresses that the social and friendship aspects of the summer school experience are highly valued, both by NAGTY and the students. In the guidance for potential summer school applicants, NAGTY notes:

    ‘Social time is an important aspect of our Summer Schools, and our members tell us that the social and recreational programme really makes the experience for them. So, try to be open-minded, ready to meet and engage with students from a whole range of backgrounds, and willing to throw yourself enthusiastically into things you may not have tried before’.

    ( http://www.nagty.ac.uk/student_academy/summer_schools )

    NAGTY's stress on addressing the all-round welfare of gifted and talented children, of providing for their social development in a supportive environment, is consistent with research that emphasises that whole-child development applies as much to very able children as to any other group (Freeman, 1991, pp216-218)

    The Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research (CEDAR) at the University of Warwick, has conducted independent evaluations of all aspects of the summer schools since their inception. Evaluations have been carried out using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Students, academic staff, qualified teachers, graduate assistants, Residential Assistants, and the parents of students, all participate in the evaluations. In relation to this paper, all students are offered the chance to complete questionnaires during and after the summer schools, and a random selection (typically 4-6) of students from all strands at evaluated summer school sites are interviewed using semi-structured interview schedules. In 2005, for example, student interviews were carried out with students at the Warwick, Durham, Leeds, Bristol, York, and Imperial College summer school sites. The evidence base for this paper is drawn from the questionnaire generated data from the 2002 pilot, and the 2003 and 2004 evaluations, along with interview generated data from those evaluations, and some preliminary findings from the Durham and Leeds 2005 summer school sites.

    1.2 Friendships at the NAGTY Summer Schools

    The CEDAR evaluations of the 2002-2004 summer schools, and the preliminary findings from the 2005 field work, indicate that, for students, the friendship aspects of their summer school experiences are the most important outcomes of attendance. Students have been universally enthusiastic about the opportunity for making and developing friendships with those whom they frequently characterise as being ‘like-minded people’. Students often perceived this aspect of summer school attendance as being the most significant benefit they gained from the experience. Many students felt that they were able to make important advances in their social and friendship skills. Students often claimed that they had ‘made friends for life’, and there is evidence that students have been able to maintain friendships after summer school attendance, despite the geographical spread of the student Academy. Students frequently commented upon the unique atmosphere among the student body at the summer schools, an atmosphere that they characterised as being one of tolerance and acceptance. For some students, this experience contrasts with their normal experience of formal education, where they are compelled to make allowances for a less supportive environment. As such, summer school friendships, and the social environment of the summer schools, have provided some students with major life-enhancing experiences.

    2. Student expectations prior to the summer schools

    Many students revealed, in interviews, that they had been apprehensive about the prospect of mixing with other NAGTY members on a residential course. Typically, students find themselves on summer schools where they do not know any other students. This is particularly the case for students who have not been on a NAGTY summer school before, but, even for returnees it is unusual for a student to know more than one of two other students. As a result, students often feel that the social aspects of the summer school will be the most difficult part. Students worried that other students would be ‘posh’, or mainly from private schools, or that other students would be significantly more able than themselves. One student, in the 2002 Warwick summer school expressed a common fear that before attending the summer school she ‘thought they [the other students] might be "boffy" or "geeky", but they are all nice’ (Lindsay, Muijs, Hartas, & Phillips, 2002, p.34). This perception was also expressed by students on later summer schools, at all sites. Typically, students arrived at the summer schools with stereotypical images of what other ‘gifted and talented’ young people would be like. Phrases such as, ‘everyone would be geeky and straight into their books’, ‘everyone else would be wanting to go to their rooms and read books’, ‘everyone would be in suits and stuff, really posh’, ‘everyone would be all swotty’, were used to describe their initial thoughts and expectations (Hartas, Cullen, & Lindsay, 2003, p.27). However, these expectations were quickly challenged.

    3. The experience of Summer School friendships

    The most enthusiastic responses from students during interviews were generated by questions associated with friendship at the summer schools and afterwards. Asked if they had found it easy to make friends at summer schools, typical responses were: ‘Yes’, ‘Yes, it’s very easy’, ‘Yeah, everyone is really friendly’, ‘Everyone wants to make friends’, ‘It’s good, it’s really, really good’, and, from a group of students that had been critical of the teaching and learning experience, a joint, spontaneous,

    ‘Yes !’ accompanied by laughter (Cullen, Cullen, & Lindsay, 2005, pp.75-76). There was a feeling among many students that they were with a large group of people with whom they felt they had much in common. Students talked about being surprised to find that there were so many people with similar interests. One female student, to the agreement of others in her strand group, noted: ‘The strange thing is that everybody I have met has the same taste in music – rock’ (Cullen et al., 2005, p.77). This observation was followed up by a half-serious comment from another student: ‘if you are intelligent, you have good taste’. Not only did students feel that they had similar tastes in music, they also felt that they shared motivations, ‘like-mindedness’, and all being members of NAGTY, all helping them to make friends. In addition, they experienced a sense of finding themselves among a community of supportive peers, an atmosphere that enabled friendships to develop quickly. ‘People are nice here’ was a common comment from students on all sites, and different summer schools throughout 2002-2005. Individual students noted:

    ‘We support each other. When someone’s down, we ask them are they ok’.

    ‘We’ve all got the same sort of experience, and are helping each other’.

    (Cullen et al., 2005, p.77)

    This experience of friendship led many students to report that they felt liberated from many of the constraints that they normally experienced in similar situations, often enabling them to go beyond their previous feelings of shyness:

    ‘I’m normally, like, really shy, but here I just sort of, the first few days, I just randomly walked up to people and smile and say, "hello, who are you?" kind of thing, in differing ways, but, you’d just go up to anyone’.

    ‘Because I’m normally so shy at home, I won’t walk up to anyone, but here [it’s different]’

    ‘I wouldn’t think of talking to someone normally’.

    ‘I actually find it easier to socialise here, because there is so much you can talk about’.

    (Cullen at al., 2005, p.78)

    Preliminary findings from field work at 2005 NAGTY Summer Schools indicate that this pattern of friendship experience has continued to be the norm throughout the system. Representative comments from interviewed students include:

    ‘It’s easy [to make friends]. Everyone is lovely here. There is no-one who is going to criticise you for wanting to learn’.

    ‘I’ve found it very easy to make friends’.

    ‘Talking to each other is very much part of the whole process, both in [friendship] groups, and in the course’.

    ‘I’ve made lots of friends […] you bump into people, and you start talking, and I’ve made a lot of friends’.

    ‘Everybody else wants to make friends as well’.

    ‘It’s great; it’s really easy to make friends’.

    (Taken from recorded interviews with students at the NAGTY Summer Schools, 2005)

    This evidence drawn from the interviews with students is supported by the questionnaire-generated data. In responses to the 2004 summer school questionnaire, for example, 93% of respondents (from a total of 968 students) indicated that socialising with like-minded peers was regarded as important:

    Table 1. Importance placed on socialising with like-minded peers

    End of summer school questionnaire (N = 968)

    %

    To a great extent
    Somewhat
    Slightly
    Not at all

     65.3
     27.7
     5.1
    1.3

    (Cullen et al., 2005, p.77)

    4. Understanding the friendship process

    Students from all summer schools and all summer school sites have exhibited a reflective and clear insight into why they found it easy to make friends. They are aware of the combination of circumstances, structures, and people that enable the making of friendships on the summer schools. They also exhibited an awareness of the interplay between these elements which enhanced the creation of friendships. In addition, some students made contrasts with their normal schooling environments, which, they felt, were not as conducive to the creation of friendships. Their understanding of these processes, and these contrasts, have been, if anything, more exact than their understanding of the learning and teaching experiences of the summer schools.

    4.1 Circumstances

    Students were clear that the residential nature of the summer schools is a key variable in creating the conditions necessary for friendships to flourish. They were aware that very few students knew anyone else before they arrived at summer school, and that, in consequence, they were all at the same starting point as far as friendship and socialising were concerned. In addition, they appreciated that whether the summer school was a three or a two week one, that time was both a short and a long time. It was seen to be short in that students realised that they had to act quickly if they were to make friendships, but they also recognised that two or three weeks on a residential course would be a very long time if one did not make any friends. Representative quotations, from students on summer schools in 2005 are typical of the majority of students:

    ‘We’re here for two weeks, and if you don’t go out there to be friendly and to be sociable, it’s going to be really tough. And so everyone has gone out there with an optimistic outlook, and everyone has been really friendly, and even though it is different age groups, we are all together [everyone] appreciates that everyone has their own interests’.

    (Recorded interview with student at the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    ‘We all come here, and I only knew one person before I came here, and most know no-one, and you have to make friends. And I’ve hardly seen him all week because you make new friends because everyone is in the same position as you’.

    (Recorded interview with student at the NAGTY summer school, 2005)

    Students on summer schools in 2004 made the link between the awareness that ‘everyone is in the same position as you’ with the residential nature of the schools:

    ‘I think it’s good for making friends because, not only do you just spend time at the school, when you get back to the things [accommodation and common rooms] you have RA [Residential Assistant] groups, and lots of different things you can do, so you make friends everywhere because you spend so much time together’.

    ‘That’s the good thing, when you go back to the university, there are lots of different [activities], that’s why they have dorm groups, and lots of different activities, and things to play with, so you make friends with all the different people’.

    (Cullen et al., 2005, p.76).

    4.2 Structures

    The summer schools are highly organised, with students being in a supportive environment at all times during their two or three weeks stay. Typically, a student will find that they are part of a number of groups. During the working day they will be part of their strand group, of between 18-22 students, of mixed ages and sexes, all studying the same discipline. In addition, they will be part of a Residential Assistants (RAs) group, of about 6-10 students, each led by an RA (typically a young undergraduate, or recently graduated student, often from the host university) whose brief is the pastoral care of his or her group. Students will often find that this RA group is different from their accommodation group, which is based on single-sex, usually age-differentiated, accommodation. Typically, a hall or dormitory group will be looked after by RAs, who are on call throughout the night. Finally, students are also mixed together in a wide variety of evening and weekend social activity groups, usually led and organised by the RAs. As a result, the students have the chance to meet a large number of their peers, and are not limited to those studying the same course as them. The importance of these interlocking social groups has been apparent in other initiatives, such as Excellence in Cities' holiday provision (Pocklington and Kendall, 2002, pp.10-11). The summer structure rapidly generates a strong sense of community, and exposes the students to the largest possible number of other students (as well as RAs) as possible. The students have identified this structure as having a key facilitating role in the formation of friendships:

    ‘You’ve got your RA groups, and you meet people there; you’ve got your course groups, and you meet people there; and you probably know at least one person, and you [meet] someone else, and….’

    (Cullen, et al., 2005, p.76)

    ‘We’ve got our RA groups, our corridor groups, our course groups, we’ve got people who go and play football in their spare time, or people who do song writing and have got their guitars with them. So you can bond together.’

    (Recorded interview with student at the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    ‘I’ve made lots of friends from [strand name] and from the night time activities that we do – you bump into people, and you start talking, and I’ve made a lot of friends. And, also, the fact that we have our corridor group, and our RA group, which is mixed sex as well’.

    (Recorded interview with student at the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    4.3 People

    Students were aware that in addition to the circumstances and structures of the summer schools, another of the key facilitating factors in making friendships was the characteristics of the student group. The majority of students attributed the friendly environment to the mix of students, and the attitude of those students to the summer school experience. Responses to the 2004 summer school questionnaire revealed that a large majority of the respondents (some 968 students) felt that the wide social mix at the summer school was important 'to a great extent', or 'somewhat':

    Table 2. Importance of the wide social mix at NAGTY summer schools

    End of summer school questionnaire (968)

     %

    To a great extent
    Somewhat
    Slightly
    Not at all

     58.3
    32.2
     7.7
     1.9

    (Cullen et al., 2005, p.79)

    Students quickly discovered that summer schools were made up of a social mix of different ages and of different social, geographic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, as well as different temperaments and characters. Many of the students interviewed commented on how much they enjoyed and benefited from being part of this social mix. For example, young people who attended single sex schools were able to socialize in a mixed environment; those who were not used to being part of a multi-cultural group gained this experience; those who went to faith schools had the opportunity to mix with young people of other faiths or none.

    ‘The corridor is a really nice mix of ages, and it’s really nice to mix socially with that sort of people, as much as you can at school, you just don’t. It’s like a hierarchy in our school – second year, third year, fourth year’.

    ‘I’ve found it really interesting because I haven’t been taught with boys since I was nine, that whole "boys are alien!" age, so I can’t remember being taught in a classroom with boys’.

    ‘It’s great how lots of different people come from all over the country – great because you can meet lots of different people who have all got different temperaments – great to meet different characters from all over the place’.

    (Hartas, et al., 2003, p.27)

    'It's interesting to see the class barriers broken down, because I've got to meet these people who [are] middle class, and it just does not matter'.

    'It's good to see that they're just like you, and they're different as well, we're just like so many individuals here...'.

    (Cullen, et al., 2005, p.80)

    The response of almost all students has been to welcome this mix, and a strong sense of community developed across the summer schools in each year. But it was not just the wide variety of backgrounds of the students, but also their attitude to the summer school experience and each other.

    The majority of students interviewed talked about the supportive and respectful attitude of the student body on the summer schools. This was a highly valued experience, and students often contrasted this with less positive attitudes that they experienced in other parts of their lives. Other evidence supports that gathered from the summer schools that the company of accepting, gifted children is valued by able students (Freeman, 1991, p.122; Wilce, 2003, pp.4-5). Students quickly became aware that summer school was a place where other students treated their peers with respect and understanding, and that people in trouble, or with problems could be supported, and were supported, by other summer school students. Students felt that the summer schools were safe environments for them to express themselves, and to fully reveal the extent to which they were interested and engaged by learning. Many students have commented on this atmosphere of tolerance and respect:

    'We're on one course, all together. We have similar interests, the same levels. We can share ideas and not be put down'.

    'We're all on the same course and people are not jealous because we all have special talents'.

    (Hartas, et al., 2003, p.28)

    'We [...] are helping each other'.

    'We support each other. When someone's down, we ask them are they ok'.

    (Cullen, et al., 2005, p.77)

    'Everyone is in the same position, everyone is here for a reason [...] everyone is here for the same reason. Everybody is really friendly with everybody else, everybody has tried to, you know, if you haven't spoken to that person, you go and speak to them'.

    (Recorded interview with student at the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    'Everybody else wants to make friends as well, so it's not like people saying, "I'm not talking to anyone"'.

    (Recorded interview with student at the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    CEDAR fieldworkers at the summer school sites have also noticed student attitudes of solidarity, respect, and politeness towards each other that characterise the summer schools, in the classrooms, in interviews, and moving around the sites.

    4.4 Making contrasts with school

    In talking about the supportive environments of summer schools, students have frequently gone on to contrast this attribute of their experience with more negative experiences at school. When this issue has been raised, students have attributed a comparatively negative experience of school life to a number of factors. Most frequently, students will talk about school peers who are uninterested in learning, and are often, in addition, hostile to those who do wish to engage with education. In addition, the students talked about barriers and divisions within schools. These students are not the only gifted and talented children to raise this issue, which has been highlighted by other work on the area (Eyre, 1997, p.99). Some of these barriers are intrinsic to the structure of school, most notably the barriers of age arising from year groups. In addition, students have commented on the sub-cultures of school life, with Goths, skaters, grungers, and chavs, amongst others, existing in a state of mutual hostility. These divisions, this type of hostility, and a mutual lack of understanding are often regarded by summer school students as an integral part of their school life, one that they contrast unfavourably with their summer school experiences. Their comments also sometimes reveal a perception that they are different in terms of motivation and attitude to education:

    'You are with people [at the summer school] who understand you, because when I am at school, I talk to other kids about writing, but they do not understand me. They think that I am strange'.

    'I think it is really good being with people [at the summer school] that you can actually sit down and talk about something without worrying what other people will think - everybody understands'.

    (Lindsay, et al., 2002, pp.33-4)

    'Everyone is kind of accepted here, whereas at school, you've got people looking down on other people, but here everyone is accepted, and everyone is just nice to everyone else, even though everyone is really, really different'.

    This student went on to explain why he thought there was a difference:

    'Maybe at school there is more authority that people might want to rebel against. And it depends on your background as well, some people might have extra events in their lives that cause them to act like that. I don't know at NAGTY whether everyone is more intelligent or whatever, but everyone seems to be more open-minded and don't make decisions before they actually meet, and get to know, a person'.

    (Recorded interview with a student on the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    'Everybody wants to work [at the summer school], they're not like the people who are going [student made a jeering noise], the people who do that have no aspirations in life, they don't care what they are going to do, they just want to get through school, and do something. But people who listen and work, they've got an idea of what they want to do, of where they want to go, and what they want to be'.

    (Recorded interview with student on the NAGTY summer schools, 2005)

    For some students, the effect of the summer school experience has been to wish that it could be the model for their normal schooling:

    'I've had conversations with people here, and they were saying that they wish this was the school they went to'.

    (Cullen, et al., 2005, p.79)

    5. Keeping in touch.

    Following the initial Warwick University pilot in 2002, there have now been three summer schools held at a variety of universities throughout England. A minority of students have been able to return to summer school, and have been able to indicate the extent to which summer school friendships have been maintained. Given that the students are drawn from all over England, there appears to be a notable level of continuing friendships. Students indicated that maintaining friendships made at summer schools was important for them. For example, the end of summer school questionnaire for the 2004 summer school (which was completed by almost all students attending the sites involved), indicated that over 90% of students felt that it was important to develop friendships that they had made:

    Table 3. Importance of developing friendships that may continue after summer school

    End of summer school (N = 968)

    Percentage

    To a great extent
    Somewhat
    Slightly
    Not at all

    70.1
    22.1
    6.4
    0.7

    (Cullen, et al., 2005, p.81)

    This has been reflected in student interviews. When talking about friendships formed at the summer schools, the students were keen to stress that they intended to keep in touch with their new friends. The evidence from students who have attended summer schools before, in 2003 and 2004, indicate that students have kept in touch with each other to a high degree. The use of texting, mobile 'phones, and, particularly, internet services, such as MSN Messenger, have all helped the students maintain their friendships. In addition, students have also arranged their own reunions. For many of the students, their summer school friendships are important, and appear to be enduring.

    6. Conclusions

    The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has shown that it is concerned not just with the provision of opportunities for the academic development of its student members. Available evidence suggests that this is, essentially, the correct approach to furthering the development of such children (Eyre 2000 pp.1-26; Freeman, 1998, pp.27-28). The NAGTY summer school model clearly embraces the need for supporting the social, as well as the academic and intellectual, development of the students. The organisation of the summer schools, and the provision of a wide variety of social opportunities indicates the importance that NAGTY places on the development of the whole student. This approach is reflected in the testimony of the students themselves. CEDAR's evaluation of the NAGTY summer schools indicates that the students typically place a very high priority on the importance of the social side of the summer school experience. For the overwhelming majority of the summer school students, the experience is one of successful socialising. For them, the central aspect of socialising is the making of new friendships from among a large, mixed, body of like-minded peers. The students find the summer school environment to be conducive to the making of new friends in a supportive, tolerant, community. These friendships are highly valued, and it appears that many students make great efforts to maintain their friendships after summer school attendance.

    References.

    Cullen, MA; Cullen, S; Lindsay, G. (2005), ‘The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth: Evaluation of the Summer School 2004’, CEDAR, University of Warwick.

    Eyre, D, (2000). 'Introduction: Effective schooling for the gifted and talented', in Eyre, D, and Lowe, H. (eds.), London, David Foulton Publishers.

    Eyre, D. (1997). Able Children in Ordinary School, London, David Fulton Publishers.

    Freeman, J. (1991). Gifted Children Growing Up, London, Cassell Educational Ltd.

    Freeman, J. (1998). Educating the Very Able: current international research, London, OFSTED.

    Hartas, D; Cullen, MA; Lindsay, G. (2003). ‘The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth: Evaluation of the Summer School 2003’, CEDAR, University of Warwick.

    Lindsay, G; Muijs, D; Hartas, D; Phillips, E. (2002). ‘The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth: Evaluation of the First Talent Search and Summer School’, CEDAR, University of Warwick.

    Pocklington, K; Kendall, L. (2002). 'The Gifted and Talented Strand of EIC: The Pupils' Voice'.

    Wilce, H, 'Trouble at the top', The Independent, 24 July 2003.

    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 09 December 2005