Bright but overlooked: in the frame for real?
It has been billed as providing rags-to-riches opportunities for the poor; My Fair Lady for the generation familiar with chavs and Asbos.
But the reform of provision for gifted and talented (Gamp;T) children could also prove to be life changing for teachers as they prepare for a new era of catering for the most able.
In an age of crippling economic problems and a lack of social mobility, it is perhaps unsurprising that politicians have chosen to focus on the most needy - and those unlikely to have pushy parents - in their latest reforms.
Out goes the emphasis on web-based activities and the old national academy, which aim merely to assist schools in identifying their brightest and best. In come extra support for those eligible for free school meals, mini scholarships and a new network of Gamp;T special schools - run under the watchful eye of the National Strategies, an organisation due to close.
Cynics might suggest the changes also reflect the attitudes of a Government keen on targets, and on policies which deliver progress that can be easily measured. The overriding quest for Gamp;T provision is now to help the under-privileged rather than the full cohort of bright children. The aim is that the smaller group, too, reaches university.
But have the changes also been introduced to save money? The current contract for provision of support for Gamp;T children with education trust CfBT was reportedly worth around Pounds 40 million and its work reached 50,000 young people. The Department for Children, Schools and Families remains tight-lipped about how many people will be able to use the new, streamlined Young Gifted and Talented Learner Academy, or what the total Gamp;T spend will be.
The new scholarships will help 2,000 new teenagers at first, rising to 8,000 within four years. At Pounds 250 per pupil, this hardly breaks the bank. The scheme to encourage children from poorer homes to go to university, City Gates, which operates in just three parts of the country, currently costs Pounds 15 million (see box). The DCSF wants to roll it out nationwide, but has declined to say how much it will spend on this - or how many people it will help. Schools have been asked to do more, mainly without the promise of any extra cash.
Catering for the cleverest children or those with particular skills in music, the arts or sport has been work in progress since the first national Gamp;T programme began in 2002, and the reforms suggest ministers think they have not yet found the right solution.
First up was the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY), run by Warwick University until 2007. This targeted the top 5 per cent of children and concentrated on providing activities, mainly through summer schools.
This approach did not last. Warwick academics decided not to re-tender to run the programme when it was reborn as a management exercise. The new contract, awarded to CfbT, involved the provision of services through regional hubs as well as a setting up a major website for children and teachers. This time the top 10 per cent of pupils were picked to take part, with the eventual aim that one in 10 children would be identified as gifted or talented - and supported appropriately.
Both approaches were heavily criticised. A government report said the legacy of NAGTY was "thin", the programme did not provide good value for money and staff did not do enough for pupils. Those who ran the academy said they were "dismayed" by the findings.
In the same report, researchers said the academy did raise the profile of Gamp;T pupils and inspired children, but its remit was too narrow to make a profound difference.
Its successor, CfBT's Young Gifted and Talented programme, is widely acknowledged to have encouraged far more teachers to identify their cleverest children. But the programme has not led to a dramatic improvement in the GCSE performance of gifted children.
There was a limit to what CfBT could achieve in just two years and the organisation acknowledged this. An internal report found the work "lacks coherence and clarity" and claimed that communication was weak. Plans were being made for stronger regional activities when the DCSF decided on the latest change of direction. Before this, CfBT had called for more stable funding from the Government to run more activities for children and pay for extra regional staff.
The organisation will continue until its contract ends in March, but key staff have already left. The National Strategies will take over many of its responsibilities, but it is not clear yet what will happen when that is discontinued in 2011.
So there is still no long-term plan for Gamp;T children, but ministers say the National Strategies have already developed a substantial raft of tools, materials and resources to help teachers.
Government-appointed Gamp;T national champion John Stannard, who has labelled current provision "patchy", wants the new programme to lift "standards and expectations for all". In a conference speech in June to those involved in Gamp;T, Mr Stannard said the programme should form part of school improvement work.
In particular, he criticised the Young Gifted and Talented Learner Academy, which he said is perceived as "by-passing schools" and discouraging teachers to take responsibility for bright pupils. "More needs to be done to raise its profile and get it on the mainstream agendas in local authorities and schools," he said.
With added responsibility for teachers come more and more ministerial checks on their work. Schools will have to complete an annual self assessment online and the Government says it will judge teachers nationally and regionally. School improvement partners and new "leading" Gamp;T schools will also monitor teachers, and Ofsted inspectors will pay particular attention to their work with the brightest pupils.
These lead schools will receive funding, but this will be used to provide activities for children from across the area. An online "opportunities catalogue" will list everything of use for the education of bright children - for example, summer camps, sports, music and drama classes.
Teachers should be reassured, the DCSF says, because the expectations of them are now "stronger and simpler". Officials hope to create an atmosphere of camaraderie, with all schools invited to contribute to a "virtual library" of Gamp;T materials, such as games and project ideas.
Experts have also warned that primary pupils are, effectively, ignored by the reforms. The advantage of CfBT's Young Gifted and Talented programme was that it catered for children aged four upwards. Those who run Gamp;T organisations say that the earlier children receive support, the better.
"It will be interesting to see how well teachers will be equipped to provide for children, but this definitely seems to be a move away from the younger ones," said Julie Taplin, from the National Association for Gifted Children. "How it's going to knit together will be the difficult thing."
Julie Fitzpatrick, chief executive of the National Association for Able Children in Education, agrees that it is "not clear" what support primary children will receive.
But she agrees with the Government's emphasis on bringing the programme into schools and thinks it will lead to even more personalised lessons.
"We are encouraged by the thinking that's led to this," she said.
"It will keep the needs of bright children prominent and will, hopefully, lead to greater emphasis on them. It will certainly keep it on the agenda for teachers.
"There's already a growing recognition of gifted and talented education, and this also extends to the support offered by local authorities. But I do agree the changes might lead to gaps for primary age children. We know for Gamp;T education to be successful it must start as early as possible."
More guidance for teachers is expected before the changes next year, and judging by the scant information about the reforms so far it is something they will be grateful for.
ON COURSE FOR UNIVERSITY
A new network of 170 high-performing specialist schools will focus on Gamp;T pupils, using DCSF funding of Pounds 10,000 a year per school.
In addition, the City Gates programme, currently operating in Greater Manchester, London and the Black Country, will give children extra classes, mentoring and coaching, and "experiences" at universities. It aims to make them more confident and familiarise them with higher education in the hope that they will go on to do a degree.
Some 1,600 Year 10s have just completed their first year on the programme, with another group set to start in September.