What would a pupil who was gifted in RE do? Start a new religion? Give a prophetic message to an assembly? Or promote atheism to all Year 7s? It may be fairly straightforward to identify talent in maths or music, but in RE there are three tricky factors.
First, giftedness in RE isn't the same as giftedness in religion itself - a young Moses or Guru Nanak may not have passed GCSE easily. RE asks for skills such as critical evaluation and analysis of philosophical alternatives, as well as reflection and spiritual depth. Second, an atheist or agnostic pupil might be gifted in RE, but wholly negative about religion. And third, a pupil who is weak in literacy or numeracy may be gifted in RE where insight and discernment are required. Most RE staff can tell stories about such children, whose written work is poor but whose engagement is profound.
So as teachers of RE work to identify and provide for gifted and talented pupils in their classes, it's not just test scores that help them get it right, but also a professional sense of what insight into spiritual questions from, for example, a 14-year-old "feels like".
Last December, a two-day conference for RE teachers from 25 secondary schools in the north of England provided an opportunity to analyse the work of gifted and talented pupils. Run by Caroline Williams, of Blue Coat School, Oldham, as part of the beacon schools programme, the conference developed dozens of strategies for giving the best possible opportunities to gifted pupils in RE. Teachers then went back to school and tried them out, gathering samples of RE work at level 7 or 8 from the classroom for analysis on the second professional development day.
"It's vital to structure work in ways that are open topped and open-ended," says Caroline Williams. "Too often, RE tasks have a ceiling that is too low for the highest achievers. The best tasks enable a big range of responses from mixed classes, each at their own level."
Teachers returned to the conference with a range of inspired outcomes from pupils, and some were surprised at how much analysis, creative talent, or discernment their 13-year-olds had shown. One pupil wrote about proof, certainty and probability when answering questions about the existence of God, another produced an anti-racist "prophetic speech". A third group had worked on analysing metaphors for the divine, for life and death, and others wrote comparative accounts of difference and commonality between Hindu dharma and their own sense of meaning and purpose.
Several groups used a tape of a speech by Martin Luther King to see if the experiences of the presence of God he described met the American philosopher William James's criteria for mystic revelation. A largely Muslim group of 13-year-olds made some profound observations on how their ideas of God are developing: one talked about moving from superstition ("I used to think rain was a sign of Allah's anger") to ethics ("I won't kill spiders any more: their life is God's gift too").
Many local authorities are providing support for the highest achieving pupils at present, but some have not connected the obvious logic of linking gifted and talented work with RE - where ultimate, unanswerable questions and interpretations of a range of answers are at the heart of the subject.
The experience of this group of teachers suggests that RE makes an excellent focus for gifted pupils.
Lat Blaylock is a national RE adviser with RE Today Professional Services, and leads INSET on this topic www.retoday.org.uk