Creating an online community for the gifted and talented has proved to be a bright idea. Three years ago, the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth set up its student academy, establishing a virtual campus to help widen opportunities for 11 to 19-year-olds.
The target was to attract 20,000 young people by 2007, but membership has already grown to 75,000. Director Professor Deborah Eyre says: "The pedagogy - and the way it complements the work of schools - seems to have pressed the right buttons."
In an online posting, one student sums up the benefits: "Although I wouldn't say that it has changed my life, it has certainly altered my attitude and made me feel that there are thousands of people my age out there who have interesting views and experiences to share. It has also raised my confidence and helped to show me what I need to do to reach my full potential. It isn't just about school and work - it's about finding a place you feel comfortable in and enjoying the social opportunities as well."
Based at Warwick University, the academy was set up by the government in 2002 to drive forward improvements in gifted and talented education. The organisation works on many fronts, running a professional academy to support teachers and a centre for research and innovation. The student academy enrols young people in the top five per cent of the ability range.
They meet at events such as summer schools, but the electronic dimension is vital, enabling students to become part of a national community and linking them with experts in their fields of interest.
The links are made in a variety of online forums. Academic study groups foster discussion and debate under the guidance of a university academic.
Groups range from ethics and philosophy to astronomy, with maths as the current favourite. "Students say it is a real privilege to take part and they find it very exciting," says Deborah. "There are no assessments - this is about enjoying learning and striving for high-level thinking rather than taking more exams."
Students asked for another forum where they could debate issues of their own choosing. Recent topics include End Poverty? and If God Exists, Why Do Bad Things Happen? "The atmosphere is collegiate - it feels like having a coffee and putting the world to rights. Many say there is no opportunity for this in their school lives," says Deborah.
There is help for students in shaping their future, through consultations with careers advisers and access to guidance materials such as case histories. Deborah says: "We aim to raise their aspirations and help them to make decisions at key points in their educational careers. Many are fortunate enough to be able to do a variety of things, but they don't make sophisticated decisions. They are just as likely as anyone else to say: I'll do this because my friend is doing it."
The teenagers also chat, touching on everything from chart hits to strategies for coping with the mountain of course work involved in attempting 12 GCSEs. "One topic is Label Me, where they talk about how it feels to be gifted and talented. For some there are issues," says Deborah.
"They feel very isolated and believe they have to disguise their ability because they are in a culture that makes being bright difficult. The online community provides a peer support network, where they can feel they are not alone."
The chat forum is also a channel for students to voice their views to policy-makers and contribute to research. They were recently invited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to contribute to the English 21 consultations on the future of English as a subject.
Deborah says: "The students are really enthusiastic about the wider learning they do with us - not because it is better than school, but because it is complementary. Their feedback, particularly as they reach exams, is that the school curriculum is high volume, low challenge. The academy engages them in a more intellectualised kind of learning.
"We see ICT as sitting at the heart of all this. It will never be practical for schools to give substantial resources to a minority of students, and ICT can help pull that minority together to provide enhanced opportunities.
We are only in the foothills of understanding what ICT can do for the gifted and talented."
* Welcomes students into a national community where they find new challenges and stimulating new friends
* Complements the curriculum, offering opportunities that a school may not be able to fund
* Fosters a love of learning, through collaboration with experts in an exam-free environment
* Empowers students to make informed decisions about their future
* Provides a peer support network to help ease pressures and feelings of isolation
* Enables the gifted and talented to influence policy-makers
* Supports both independent and collaborative learning, and enables students to take more control of their learning
Membership of the National Association of Gifted and Talented is open to students aged 11-19 resident and studying in England. Nominations are usually made by schools, although independent applications are also possible.
Details of eligibility criteria at www.nagty.ac.uk
Tel: 024 7657 4213