The gift of talent-spotting

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Teachers are finally warming to the national academy for the gifted, but how successful are they at picking out which pupils to send there?

Hilary Wilce reports

Two years ago David Miliband, then a junior education minister, outlined his goal for gifted and talented education. "We will have succeeded," he said, "when 'too clever by half' is no longer an English insult."

But teachers were resistant and the new National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth - cloned from an American model, and parachuted down on to British schools - struggled to fill summer school places. The ambition seemed doomed to failure.

Today things look different. The academy, which is based at Warwick university and seen as the focus for the national programme, is growing fast. Last year's summer schools were filled, and its online and outreach programmes are expanding. Two-thirds of secondary schools want to work with it, and 45,000 children are now members - an explosion of interest, given the initial target for 2004 was 7,000. Teacher attitudes are also softening, even in hard-core areas.

"The more we go into schools, the more the schools are willing to go into it," says Ian Warwick, development director for London Gifted and Talented, a consortium which supports the capital's schools. "People are beginning to understand that gifted and talented is about equal opportunities."

Things have moved so quickly that the so-called English model of addressing the needs of high-ability children by blending mainstream and add-on provision is currently the toast of international conferences.

But not all is rosy in the gifted and talented garden. Progress remains patchy, there is still prejudice, and no one can agree what a gifted and talented child looks like.

On top of all that, it has yet to be proved that investment in this area brings results. Much recent work has been pioneered through the gifted and talented strand of the Excellence in Cities programme, which aims to boost achievements in deprived areas. But an official evaluation of Excellence in Cities last June found it was having only "a very modest" impact on key stage 3, GCSE and vocational results.

However, Deborah Eyre, director of the academy, says it takes at least five years for results to show, and she expects to see improved exam performance, alongside heightened self-confidence and aspirations. "Our biggest job is to improve the system, and if we don't, there's no point," she said.

To that end, the academy is working in partnership with 46 universities to offer local events and online forums, as well as providing support for teachers and exploring whether it can help train new ones. Its high-profile summer schools have been criticised as expensive and only available to a few children, but most have now been shortened from three to two weeks, and financial support is available.

Even so, normal costs for the 1,050 places mean that a school and a student's family have to find pound;500 on top of the Department for Education and Skills' subsidy of pound;1,100, and many schools choose not to do this.

Julia Mabey, school improvement adviser for south Gloucestershire, also points out: "The logistics of getting someone to Durham in the summer holiday raises all kinds of issues. People think about their family holiday and whether it's an unwarranted risk, and the fact that it's a huge amount of money."

"They are expensive," agrees Professor Eyre, "so we want schools to think carefully about who would really benefit."

But she points out that the Office for Standards in Education has praised them. "And we do know they can be life-changing," she says. "One mother told us she thought she was picking up the wrong child after her daughter had changed so completely."

But how are schools supposed to know who is gifted and talented? The question has taken on new urgency with the plan to put academy membership on Ucas forms. The academy says this is the first step towards developing a comprehensive record of student achievement which will help universities select the brightest. But Joan Freeman, of Middlesex university's school of education, points out that ticking a box is bound to be divisive.

While Volvo mummies will press schools to sign up their offspring, children whose parents or schools are not so keen will suffer.

The DfES says the group should include the top 5 to 10 per cent, split into the gifted, with academic abilities, and the talented, who have sporting and artistic ones. Wales goes for the top 20 per cent. The National Association for Gifted Children likes to keep it special - the top 1 or 2 per cent.

"I know of a school that includes all the top 30 per cent," scoffs director Stephen Tommis. "These children aren't gifted, they're bright."

At the other end of the spectrum, gifted and talented consultant Barry Hymer rejects all notions of quotas. "We're paid to teach, not judge. I believe in identification through provision, as opposed to test and provide. You enrich the environment and then students identify themselves."

The academy says identifying giftedness is always going to be imprecise, and that it is best o use multiple criteria, in-cluding teachers' opinions. Also, Professor Eyre sees little point in separating the gifted from the talented.

"Most of our children are both. We would expect to see a good handful of children being identified in each school's year group, but we do want to encourage teachers to take a risk in what they are looking for," she says.

But Ofsted has noted that teachers are not clever about spotting the brightest, and TES columnist Ian Whitwham says too many plump for "... the merely quiescent. The swotting drones... anyone called Emily or Josh..."

Ian Warwick struggled with this when working at Holland Park school, in west London. "We had 120 nationalities in school, 30 per cent refugees, so I had to ask myself, 'Did our gifted and talented register reflect that?'

"Closer scrutiny added some Eastern European pupils. But I still had to go back and ask why the Somali kids weren't being picked up."

Then there is the problem of uneven provision. Gifted mathematicians are more easily spotted than gifted philosophers, while resources remain a postcode lottery - schools in Excellence in Cities areas have dedicated money for gifted and talented work, but others do not.

Julia Mabey points out that her rural authority, where children can be just as deprived as city kids, has "zip" to spend. The academy says if it had more resources, it could move faster. As it is, it has a budget of just pound;5.75 million a year, and has barely started to work with primary schools.

Meanwhile Ofsted pointed out last year that primary schools are failing to support their talented pupils, and Stephen Tommis gets 2,000 calls a year from frustrated families.

"An awful lot still hinges on the school head," he says. "If he or she is interested there will be policies and action. Otherwise it's just ink on paper."

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