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'The Gifted and Talented scheme limits children's ambitions; it's time for a rethink'

Christina Booth, a former secondary teacher and a grandmother in Essex, writes:

“Why aren’t I gifted and talented, grandma?” my 6-year-old granddaughter asked me last week. Three children had been selected from her class to participate in the Gifted and Talented scheme at her primary school and she was upset that she had been excluded.

By definition, the school was sending her a clear message that she was neither gifted nor talented, nor was anyone in the remaining 90 per cent of the class. And this whole process was to be repeated for each of the next four years of primary school.

Each year, 90 per cent of the children were going to have this message reinforced so that by the end of primary they would be in no doubt that they did not have any gifts or talents. The school states that the children will be selected each year to be given help to stretch them and develop their superior gifts and talents. In certain years, children originally identified as gifted and talented may find that they are dropped and suddenly find themselves slightly less gifted and talented.

My question is, what does this do to the self-esteem of the majority of children? Surely, at this tender age, we should be encouraging all of our children and letting them know that each one of them has gifts and talents that school can help develop rather than label them as lacking at such a young age? Children in many European countries do not even begin school until the age of 7. And secondary teachers wonder why children are disaffected by the time they enter secondary school. Perhaps this is part of the problem? We need to inspire our children and give them a taste for success rather than failure.

I am aware that this was a Labour government initiative to try to address the needs of more able working class children, to stretch them and help them achieve what is termed "their full potential". It was perceived that middle class parents always support their children’s education and if they do not wish to personally motivate and coach them, may buy privilege through the private sector.

There is some opinion that the scheme creates competition and there will be an element of that among parents who are interested in their children’s education. In many state schools there is a large number of children who are not supported at all at home; what chance is there for them when they are also condemned and limited by their school?

A figure of 10 per cent of a class used for selection purposes in the Gifted and Talented scheme, which in a state school class equates to three out of thirty children, is adhered to irrespective of the general ability of a class.

Every teacher recognises that there is great variation in every year group, in certain years the general ability is far greater than in others and children may be more interested in certain topics than others. I believe that the whole system is flawed. Children are often subjectively chosen, the scheme devalues the majority of children, damages their self-worth and denies them access to further development.

My granddaughter brought home an excellent report at the end of last year which claimed that she was achieving higher levels for every subject except PE. Her mother was told at the last parent’s evening that she had nothing to worry about. Evidently, she has. And it is not necessarily in her daughter’s abilities.

Many parents and teachers would agree that many of the supposedly gifted and talented children are already pushed and coached to excel by ambitious parents. Child violin prodigies do not suddenly one day pick up a violin and play a concerto; a great deal of effort, tuition and encouragement goes into their learning path.

There are numerous methods of encouraging and stretching all children without imposing limits. In the "good old days" we had extension activities for children who had completed set class work that every child could aim for. Instead of selecting children on an annual basis, children could be encouraged to compete on a weekly basis, which shares the opportunity.

Schools are obliged to follow government guidelines and tick all boxes to achieve good Ofsted reports and rank well in league tables. That is all well and good; they can tick all their boxes and claim to follow every single guideline to the dot but, in my opinion, they fail the majority of their pupils.

I would like to see state schools aspire to much more than fulfilling contractual obligations and obtaining their quota of results at various levels. Personally, I expect more. I want my granddaughter to be inspired, to be told that she can aim for whatever she sets her heart upon and that the school will assist every inch of the way.

I would encourage the government to amend the Gifted and Talented scheme and to make the opportunity of extended study available to any child who would like to be involved. We constantly hear how children in other nations are surpassing our children in various subjects. Every child is bursting with all sorts of gifts and talents in varying stages of development; it is our education system which is failing to recognise and support them. My message to the education secretary Nicky Morgan would be not to limit our children if you want to avoid the standards of British education to fall further.

Personally, I do not want to take any chances and am trying to persuade my daughter to send my beloved granddaughter to a prep school and am happy to pay for her education. I want her to have every opportunity that a child could possibly have, to be praised, rewarded and believed in every step of the way. I would also like that opportunity for every other child in the land.

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