More interest is being taken in policies for high ability pupils. We don't use the word 'gifted'," says Deborah Eyre, an organiser for the National Association for Able Children in Education, "the word is highly emotive and conjures up an image of a very rare and special child." This is unhelpful, she suggests, because it makes teachers less likely to recognise high ability among their own pupils.
NACE exists to offer information and ideas for schools seeking to improve opportunities for their brightest pupils. It is two years into a three-year project to bring state school staff together to find ways of doing this. The scheme receives a grant of Pounds 50,000 from the Department for Education and Employment, although continued funding is not guaranteed.
So far the programme has proved popular, partly because it sidesteps the question of how to identify and measure intelligence. Many teachers do not feel confident that they have the training to spot exceptional ability (very few PGCE courses cover this area), especially when brilliance is obscured by behavioural or linguistic problems. And many teachers question the value of IQ tests.
NACE, says Deborah Eyre, recommends that teachers "have a bash at identifying able children, while recognising that you won't be 100 per cent successful", then "provide something extra, something challenging, and see who responds to it".
Very few pupils are highly talented in all areas, she says, much more common is a strong aptitude for music or maths. "So the kind of provision a school makes has to be curriculum-based; teachers should provide enrichment and extension work in each area." Nor should schools worry about whether their able children would be judged able in the school down the road.
In 1992 a report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate observed that "only a minority of schools have regarded the development of policies for very able pupils as a high priority".
The revised version of the national curriculum acknowledges for the first time that some children may need to move through the level descriptions faster than others. The "exceptional performance" paragraph at the end of each subject Order is supposed to indicate that Level 8 should not be viewed as a ceiling on achievement.
Chris Stevens, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's officer for special needs, says SCAA will increasingly be monitoring how well the Orders are serving able pupils, starting with a meeting with teachers this month.
Britain suffers from a serious dearth of research into the needs of the highly able, especially compared with the United States. Professor Joan Freeman, a psychologist and lecturer at the London Institute of Education, says this is dangerous because unqualified amateurs tend to leap in to fill the vacuum. "There are too many people in this area who appear to be experts, expounding sterotypes about gifted people that have no basis in scientific research, " she says.
Professor Freeman has carried out a 16-year study of a group of gifted children, charting their progress from primary school to university or employment. In a chapter for Implementing the New National Curriculum, published later this year, she says: "Excellence does not emerge independently... Policies for the highly able should be research-driven if resources are to be used wisely."
* NACE:Park campus, BoughtonGreen Road, NorthamptonNN2 7AL.Tel 01604 716922 * Gifted Children Growing Up,by Joan Freeman, Cassell, Pounds 14.99. Her latest book, ActualisingTalent, is published in Novemberby Cassell, Pounds 14. 99.