Deborah Eyre, head of the Research Centre for Able Pupils at Oxford Brookes University told the conference: "This is not about providing an education for only gifted and talented children, but making sure their needs are met alongside the needs of other pupils."
Intellectual ability has been traditionally recognised through tests, she said. These "may provide a short-cut to the process of recognition in some areas, but we must also ask, how reliable are they?" She added: "It would be folly to build an organisational system which suggests, however obliquely, that achievement on baseline entry can determine A-level achievements."
She and audience members were critical of government attempts to meet the needs of bright pupils through after-hours "master classes" ad summer schools. "I need convincing that they are any good," Ms Eyre said.
Out-of-hours tuition schemes financed by the New Opportunities Fund until 2002 will cost more than pound;180 million.
Schools minister Estelle Morris said summer schools should reinforce school learning.
Sir David Winkley, founder of the National Primary Trust and the Children's University, said spotting bright pupils had traditionally been hit-and-miss. "It's not so surprising that it's all too easy for talent to pass through the net."
Guidelines for secondaries are being piloted as part of the Excellence in Cities scheme and require comprehensives to identify the brightest 5 to 10 per cent of students and offer them courses. Of these, two-thirds have to be identified as being good academically, with the remaining third being artistic, sporty or having "all-round ability." The guidance for primaries is due to be published in November.
* Inside the Children's University - pages 10 to 14