Fewer than a third of available places have been filled at the government-backed summer school for gifted and talented children, with just a month remaining before the deadline to sign up.
The summer school, run by Warwick University, was piloted last year, when it was attended by 100 children. This year, 900 gifted and talented places are being offered for courses at five universities, including Warwick, Durham and York.
But, since applications opened two months ago, only 250 places have been filled. Of these, 125 are for courses based at Warwick University. The first programmes begin on July 20. Applications close on June 30.
While last year's pilot was free, courses this year will cost pound;1,000 per pupil. However, at least 60 per cent of pupils are expected to qualify for subsidies, and 15 per cent will pay no fees.
Places at the summer scheme are limited to members of the Warwick-based national academy for gifted and talented youth. But since its launch last year, only 1,100 pupils have registered. The target is 6,200 members by September 2004.
Many headteachers believe that low numbers reflect a widespread scepticism about the academy's appeal.
Tony Creissen, head of Colne community school, in Essex, said: "There's an anti-boffin culture at school. If someone is seen as too clever, they're called a 'boff'.
"We have 1,400 pupils, and probably only one or two in the gifted-and-talented league. Are they willing enough and brave enough to go out on their own?"
Brenda Spenceley, head of Patchway high, in South Gloucestershire, agreed:
"Most of our pupils would be scared out of their minds. It's also divisive.
We prefer to extend inclusion by doing enough in-school for children at both ends of the spectrum."
Many educationists have questioned the practicality of the summer school.
Courses run for three weeks, which requires long-term commitment at a time when many families prefer to take holidays.
Lis Stock, gifted-and-talented co-ordinator for Leicester local authority, said: "The summer school is very inflexible. For ethnic students in particular, going on a three-week residential course is not something their families would encourage, or that they would feel comfortable doing."
She said that even the subsidised costs have proved prohibitive, with one pupil unable to meet his pound;270 fees.
Peter Dunn, of the national academy, said that a failure to fill all summer-school places will not reflect badly on the scheme itself. The programme will be re-examined at the end of the summer.
He said: "Everybody knows that this is a complete leap in the dark. But we've already more than doubled last year's numbers. We're still very much in the pilot phase, and we're going to learn from it, and grow year on year."