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Divisive strategy of grooming the gifted

A Labour government should concentrate on helping the disadvantaged, not the innately talented, writes John White

In its latest white paper, the Government reaffirms its commitment to special provision for gifted and talented pupils. This is part of its policy of personalisation, or fitting provision to individual needs: while "those who fall behind" get extra help so that they can catch up, "those with a real talent" get stretched.

Personalisation sounds fine in principle. Who would not want every child to have an education that exactly suits them? But the white paper's idea of special provision for the most able looks less than benign. Personalisation works first by placing pupils in categories. Throughout the white paper, classification tends to be threefold, as in "we must make sure that every pupil - gifted and talented, struggling or just average - reaches the limits of their capability".

So now we know. The Government believes in three sorts of children, and in fixed intellectual ceilings. It must be the first time since the 1950s that these beliefs have powered national policy.

In those days, we had the tripartite system based on the 11-plus.

Tripartism itself arose out of the practice of treble-tracking in London's elementary schools in the 1920s. In the words of Cyril Burt, the guru behind both initiatives, this involved "a series of backward classes for slow children, a series of advanced classes for quick children, both parallel to the ordinary series of standards for children of ordinary average ability".

The resemblance to the above is striking. Since 1999, GT pupils have had their own national strategy to help personalise their learning. This has focused on 5 to 10 per cent of pupils in each school, those deemed to be GT. A National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has been set up at Warwick university for the country's most able 5 per cent.

How is this giftedness to be characterised? Is it mainly innate ability, or can children become gifted through encouragement or coaching? The new tripartism only makes respectable sense if it's the former. If middle-class parents could engineer their children's inclusion in this group, new Labour policy would be as biased against more deprived families as the old 11-plus was. So should we assume that all those Stoke Newington mums who go in for early reading, ballet and piano lessons, encouraging an interest in learning Persian or the life of the badger, are wasting their time? If Francesca is gifted, she is gifted by nature.

Government policy seems to reinforce this. It wants to identify those GT children, especially from working-class homes, whose latent ability is not reflected in present attainment. Cyril Burt claimed to pick them out by a high IQ score. We now know that coaching can improve IQ. Is there some other way of spotting hidden giftedness? The evidence can come only from what a child is seen doing. And what could this be but some sort of attainment?

This conclusion is reinforced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority checklist of GT characteristics. It tells teachers to look out for pupils who think quickly and accurately, work systematically and flexibly, and generate creative working solutions. All these can be improved through coaching.

Even within its own inadequate terms the policy is unfair and unfeeling. If 5 to 10 per cent of pupils get privileged treatment, what about those who fall below the cut-off point and get lumped in with the "average"? What about feelings of envy, resentment or personal inadequacy among the non-chosen? If enrichment activities and support for special interests are good for some pupils, they are good for all. Sensible schools lay these on for everybody.

Why has a Labour government tangled with such a divisive strategy? Cyril Burt was motivated by blind faith in eugenics. For him, the gifted were conduits to a higher evolution of the species. Labour education secretaries have been impelled by something less high-flown. One of the aims of the Department for Education's national strategy, stated in 2002, is to "help to attract parents back to inner-city maintained secondary schools".

Whether this carrot is necessary - since there has been no middle-class rush into private schooling - and whether it is just, are further questions. The Government shows every sign of having been taken in by the weak arguments of the giftedness lobby. The latter is right in saying that very able pupils often need extra stimulation. But so do most children. It assumes that the needs of the average child are met by the national curriculum. But there is mounting evidence against this - as current QCA reform initiatives emphasise.

Instead of its GT gurus, a Labour government should listen to people such as William Atkinson, head of Phoenix high school in west London, in his recent call for an educational Marshall Plan to help the most challenging students. Small class sizes; really good teachers; continuous professional development; extensive extra-curricular activities... That is where the effort should go.

John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at London university Institute of Education. His latest book, The Curriculum and the Child, is published by Routledge

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