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Tapping into talent

When it comes to finding gifted pupils, sometimes teachers have to play detective. Sadie Gray reports

Investigating a 180-year-old grisly death in the woods helped one teacher identify the most gifted and talented among her pupils. Cathie McIlroy gave her class the chance to play time-travelling detectives, exercising their ability to weigh evidence and assess the authenticity of sources, in a project that proved a challenge not just to the most talented but to all of the children involved.

Pupils from Year 5 and Year 6 at St Gregory's RC Primary in Smethwick, West Midlands, used specially written stories. As well as the death in neighbouring Warley Woods which occurred in 1822, the children also delved into the mystery behind a body preserved in a peat bog, and various Victorian and Saxon whodunnit mysteries.

Cathie says the task aimed to pick up on the vogue for Harry Potter-style adventures. "We used the stories as part of the process of getting the children into the whole idea of what we were going to do. We had a set of characters the children would relate to."

Cathie says the children were gripped by the stories, which were written by Jon Nichol from Exeter and Plymouth universities, and although she had qualms about using such gruesome subject matter, in the end they proved unfounded.

"The children were really immersed in the text. They were not all able readers, but they were all able to read to a certain extent," she says.

As well as seeing the emergence of gifted and talented children who had not previously been identified, it also led to a surge in writing ability across all levels, with 60 per cent of pupils exceeding the school's high expectations in non-statutory Sats writing, according to Cathie.

The project was one of 12 where teachers worked with experienced higher education mentors funded by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. While approaches to teaching gifted pupils range from treating them differently within the class, to removing them for taxing activities, experts agree the most important thing is spreading best practice.

"This is about meeting the needs of our most able pupils, not by doing something completely different, but by placing it into the general education system - blending it into good quality provisions in the classroom," says Professor Deborah Eyre, director of the Warwick-based academy.

"The bit people find hardest is what happens in the classroom, the day-to-day provisions. This places the teacher right at the centre of the process."

John Bayley, a teaching consultant, says while refresher training or sabbaticals were ideal, giving teachers time to visit other schools and gain ideas by watching other staff at work was getting results.

"We need to treble the professional development time for teachers," he says. "Buddy schemes that allow you to go into other people's schools are wonderful things, but I would be very surprised if people get to do it for two or three hours a year, when really you would need to do it two, three or six days a year"

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A team of consultants at Bolton council has put together a handbook to help teachers deal with talented children.

The guidance includes case studies of what is a talented and gifted child and strategies for use in the classroom.

Nick Tyldesley, teaching and learning consultant who co-wrote the handbook with Jane Thompson, a science consultant, says it starts from the basic premise that not all talented children are alike.

"No one size fits all, and this handbook is really about giving teachers a set of questions they can use for themselves," he says.

Copies of the handbook cost pound;25 including PP and details are available from Hazel Wolfendale on 01204 338100 or


Dancers Ben Schmidt and Caroline Jarvis, of Churchfields School in Swindon, and Viv Slayford, of Swindon Dance Youth Academy, held a dance open day.

They followed it up with auditions and found problems in talent-spotting often boiled down to teachers not always knowing how to identify talent, and distinguish raw talent from skills refined by tuition. While 16 of the 25 children chosen for further training had already been identified as talented, the other nine had not.

The researchers concluded that the key to more effective talent-spotting was to widen the pool of applications.

The main issues were treating dance as a separate subject in school, with specialist teachers and access to organisations such as Swindon Dance.

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