Cuts prevent the gifted from lifting off the ground
They have been at the centre of any number of U-turns and policy disappointments for well over a decade. Politicians of every hue have oft made so-called gifted and talented children the centre of attention, only for whatever initiative they announced to be shelved, rethought or collapse.
Now, their plight has worsened. New data obtained by TES shows cuts are biting deep into the fragile local authority cottage industry that has grown up around "G amp; T".
A quarter of councils, some 26 per cent, have made cuts to the number of staff employed to support these pupils - those designated either the most academically able or those talented in areas such as music or sport - since 2009. In the same period, the workforce employed in England to work with this special group has fallen from the already miniscule 124 to 95.
One immediate consequence of these reductions, say experts, is that many headteachers who want to provide extra support for their brightest pupils now have to pay for it from their own budgets.
Charities have also warned the cuts could lead to children going without support. A total of 36 per cent of councils now have no advisers, managers or inspectors working with gifted and talented pupils, including Birmingham, Hull, Liverpool and Plymouth.
Indeed, the School Census showed a drop for the first time in the number of children being identified as gifted and talented by their teachers this year. In 2010, 847,195 were on the gifted and talented register; in 2011 this fell to 817,905, suggesting that identifying and supporting bright pupils is now less of a priority for schools.
Local authority gifted and talented managers and advisers are generally expected to run training for teachers and plan enrichment activities for pupils in their area.
But the data suggests that this work is increasingly rare. Denise Yates, chief executive of the National Association for Gifted Children, said these cuts were "short-sighted".
"Local authorities were keeping things going; now who is going to do it? Teachers are contacting us for help because they don't know who else to approach," she said.
"Now all we will get is individual schools reinventing the wheel. Unfortunately some might say this work is too difficult and not do it."
Greenwich, in south-east London, is one council in which the cuts are being felt. Until 2010, the local authority employed a gifted and talented adviser, but in 2011 the post had gone. A spokesman said this was a result of losing #163;500,000 worth of Government grants, which made it "no longer possible to fund the post". He added that schools in the borough are working together to pay for their own specialist services.
The local authority cuts follow the end of the national, Government-funded programme for pupils classed as gifted and talented by their teachers. The official line is that responsibility for supporting gifted and talented pupils now rests solely with teachers.
One of the consequences of this ad-hoc approach is that individuals and organisations involved in gifted and talented education in the UK have set up their own network, GT Voice, so they can continue to communicate.
Tim Dracup, who was lead manager for gifted and talented education at the former Department for Children, Schools and Families and is now on the board of GT Voice, said some specialists who no longer work for local authorities have returned to work in schools, or have become freelance consultants.
But this is far from perfect. "There are excellent teachers who do all they can to support children, but my concern is it shouldn't just be schools who do this work," he said.
Janey Walker, new director of Warwick University's International Gateway for Gifted Youth, said pupils on the gifted and talented register could "slip through the net" without local authority support.
"Their schools might not give them as much attention because they assume they will pass their exams, so there won't be the same focus on them," she said.
124.5 - Number of gifted and talented advisers, inspectors and managers employed by local authorities in 2009 (equivalent members of staff)
95 - Number of gifted and talented advisers, inspectors and managers employed by local authorities in 2011
52 - Number of local authorities who told TES they do not employ any specialist gifted and talented staff.