Gifted and talented

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Did you know?

* 'Gifted' pupils have ability in one or more curriculum subjects; 'talented' have ability in sports or creative arts, says the DfES

* All attempts to write gifted children into special needs legislation have failed

* The Government's academy for very able children was set up last year at a cost of pound;20 million over four years

* An American merchant bank is paying for 500 teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds to have lessons in entrepreneurship

* The Welsh scheme for 'able and talented' children will concentrate on the top 20 per cent, rather than the top 10 as in England

"Too clever by half" is a peculiarly British turn of phrase, often applied to foreigners. Home-grown Miss Marple is effortlessly smart; the Belgian Poirot uncomfortably calculating. Now, rather bravely, ministers have decided on a programme of rehabilitation for the conspicuously bright. At a recent conference in Birmingham, education minister David Miliband said:

"We will show we have succeeded when 'too clever by half' is no longer an English insult." The son of a world-renowned political scientist, educated at a London comprehensive, he was probably speaking from the heart.

It is a long-standing prejudice. The distrust of learning, books and ideas was picked out as a defining "philistine" feature of the British ruling classes by poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold in the 19th century. But in the intervening years , the most privileged sections of society have changed their minds about the learning game. The independent sector now invests in music, drama and higher learning in a way only dreamed of in the average state school. There is little doubt that this was in the minds of Labour ministers when, soon after coming to power in 1997, they announced a radical new emphasis on help and support for "gifted and talented" children. "We need to cater for the special needs of every single pupil, whether they have statements of special needs because they are struggling with learning, or because they have special gifts and talents that mean they are bored in too many lessons and fail to make the most of themselves," said Mr Miliband. "You should not have to go private to be stretched, developed or nurtured."

Who are the gifted and talented pupils and how many are there?

In 1999, the Government published its strategy to help and support "gifted and talented pupils". The definition is loose but, according to the Department for Education and Skills: "Gifted pupils are defined as those with ability in one or more curriculum subjects while talented pupils are those with talents in sports or creative arts." The strategy recognises that some pupils are all-rounders and may show impressive general ability rather than extraordinary scores in any one subject. It also accepts that ability may show itself in a highly specific way, through poetry or creative writing, for example, as opposed to simple IQ tests. To use the professional jargon, it can "accommodate multi-dimensional models of ability".

This contrasts with a more traditional approach to ability taken, for example, by Mensa, which takes only the top 2 per cent - one in 50 - of the population as judged by IQ testing. Different tests give different readings but, as a rough guide, this means a score above 130.

How does the strategy help?

It has a two-pronged approach. The first is school-based, particularly through the Excellence in Cities programme, and deals with up to 10 per cent of the most able pupils in an individual primary or secondary - however successful or unsuccessful that school is in the academic league tables. The second prong is the new Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth based at Warwick University, which aims to provide courses and materials for the top 5 to 10 per cent of the national population.

Excellence in Cities

This government initiative is helping 1,300 maintained secondary schools in 58 local education authorities, most in deprived urban areas, and 750 primaries. Fostering high expectations is a major strand, and schools and local authorities are expected to have strategies for looking after their high-performing students.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey technology college, in the London borough of Southwark, for example, takes part in a borough-wide programme to help its most able pupils, particularly linguists. Earlier this year, assistant headteacher Charles Claxton explained: "Participants are selected not only for their linguistic ability, but for showing a genuine interest in developing their knowledge and skills. The chosen few (5 to 10 per cent of each year group) are withdrawn from some language lessons for extra activities and have automatic membership of a lunchtime clubI Regular attenders go on free trips; recently, for example, we went to see the film Jeunesse Doree at l'Institut Francais and met some of the cast for a conversation in French" (TES, January 31).

The Government wants every school and local education authority to have a co-ordinator for gifted and talented pupils, and the initiative has spawned thousands of additional projects. Schemes range from lunchtime mathematics to music master classes in the summer holidays. But they are not compulsory and money to pay for them is limited to schools in the Excellence in Cities scheme.

The Warwick academy

The academy, which Labour promised as part of its programme to support very able children at every stage of their learning, was set up last year at a cost of pound;20 million over four years. It offers residential summer school programmes for young teenagers, conferences, scholarships and web-based teaching, and is modelled on the Center for Talented Youth, a long-established programme at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US.

While the British academy sets out to identify bright individuals, it differs from the American model because it does not rely on test scores alone. Teacher recommendation and social circumstances are all taken into account. Eventually, the programme hopes to cater for up to 150,000 gifted youngsters and run courses all year round.

The academy offered places for 900 children this summer at Warwick and four other universities after last year's free pilot summer schools. But it had well-publicised difficulties attracting applicants amid complaints that the course took too much out of the summer holidays.

In the end, it had only 530 pupils. Unlike the US, Britain has no established summer school culture, and the summer holidays here are considerably shorter than the 11 weeks enjoyed by US pupils. Some critics have also suggested that British parents are being asked to contribute too much money. Courses currently cost about pound;1,700 per child to run, with parents expected to pay a maximum of pound;330 and schools pound;270. This year, at least 60 per cent of pupils qualified for subsidies and 15 per cent paid no fees at all. The fees and the timetable are under review for next year.

The academy relies on private sector sponsorship to pay for some of its activities, and has received support from Goldman Sachs, the American merchant bank, which is paying for 500 teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds to have lessons in entrepreneurship. Caterpillar, a company that makes heavy earth-moving machinery, has agreed to make a donation, as has National Grid Transco, which runs the national network of gas pipelines.

Before Labour

A limited amount of support for academically gifted pupils was already in place before 1997. School grants, for example, were available through charitable groups. But according to one of the DfES officials involved in the gifted and talented programme: "The perception was that the school system could focus more on the most able than it had been doing."

What other help is available?

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), based in Milton Keynes, was set up in 1967 to support parents and teachers who believe their children may be unusually gifted. It makes no distinction between the academic and the artistic child. It publishes books and advice packs on a range of topics, employs consultants and runs training courses for schools and local authorities as well as a free helpline for parents. Membership of the NAGC Youth Agency entitles subscribers to receive Muse, a quarterly magazine for the most able, and allows internet access to Youth Cafe, an online forum for gifted children and students aged 11 to 20. The NAGC has no cut-off point and deals with anyone who believes their children may need additional help.

The National Association for Able Children in Education (NACE) works with teachers rather than parents. It pays for itself by offering advice and training to schools and local authorities.

Mensa runs the Mensa Foundation for Gifted Children, and Junior Mensa publishes the magazines Bright Sparks and Pigasus. Mensa International also provides the moderated newsgroup mensa.sigs.giftedchildren, an online forum for parents, teachers, and children.

The private school sector is increasingly involved, too. It is now common for fee-paying schools to help their state sector counterparts with masterclasses in, say, maths or modern languages for the more talented students. In 1998, the educational consultancy Gabbitas launched Tomorrow's Achievers workshops for the top 2 per cent of the ability range. They include theatre, science and art courses - and one on designing board games.

Why should gifted pupils get any extra help?

Aside from questions of fairness and inclusivity, there is evidence that school life can be exceptionally difficult for high IQ children, who may be doing work at a level well below their true ability. High intelligence is associated with seriously disruptive behaviour and introversion, and may involve difficulties relating to other pupils. And children seen as socially maladroit are at particular risk of bullying. Many schools and teachers have lacked knowledge and expertise on this sort of issue in the past.

Do talented children have special educational needs?

Not according to the rules, even though many highly able children require extra support. All attempts in Parliament to write gifted children into the special needs legislation have been rejected as likely to further complicate a system that is already confusing and difficult to administer.

But why the fuss over such a small group of pupils?

Much of it is symbolic. Fearing that the state system has become associated with low standards and a lack of aspiration in some parts of the UK, the Government is keen to put out another message. There is also a particular concern with the growing success of the independent sector, which has left many of London's schools with almost no middle-class families. Ministers are keen to draw ambitious parents with an interest in the arts back into the state sector.

How has the initiative been viewed so far?

The response has been mixed. Teachers have welcomed a framework that allows them to pursue interesting initiatives. Without the gifted and talented programme, many of the drama visits, music masterclasses and philosophy clubs taking place would never have happened. NACE says now is the time to increase funding for the scheme so it can reach all schools, not just those in the inner cities. Teachers, it suggests, would also welcome less form-filling.

But there is also concern about the national academy and the attempts to identify an apparent elite. According to Professor Joan Freeman, a government adviser based at the University of Middlesex, and one of the most senior researchers in the field, an approach that concentrates on high-performing youngsters is liable to attract those with pushy parents.

Most of the undiscovered talent, she says, will lie undiscovered as a consequence. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says: "Teachers spend a great deal of time preparing additional materials for bright children, but it remains the case that children with learning difficulties rightly take up more of his or her time. I'm sceptical about the need to increase this programme to create an elite group of young people at a tender age."

Has the Government's programme helped?

There is no evidence either way. And as no systematic testing was done at the outset, there will be no data for some time. Ministers claim, however, that the national strategy is "beginning to make a real difference".

Earlier this year, Ofsted found that 40 per cent of schools made good provision for their most able pupils. Provision was strong in a quarter of authorities and "sound" in the majority. But in a third of LEAs, it was only "at an early stage of development". There has been no identifiable impact on exam results as yet, but the DfES points out that the percentage of five GCSE A*-Cs has increased in Excellence in Cities areas. The national academy is devising a major research project to evaluate its work.

What do other countries do?

In the US, the model is based firmly on test scores - like much else in its education system. China takes the opposite approach, as did eastern European countries before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There, "children's palaces" provide free tuition in music, art and academic subjects to all-comers after school. The approach has the advantage of engaging children's enthusiasm, and ensures it is not just those with ambitious families who receive extra help, says Professor Freeman. At least one, and possibly two, children's palaces will be piloted in the London area through the London Challenge initiative, although no date has been set.

Wales is about to launch its own scheme for "able and talented", although it will concentrate on a broader range of pupils - the top 20 per cent rather than the top 10. Scotland and Northern Ireland as yet have no comparable plans.

In western terms, Britain's interest is comparatively unusual because many European countries, including Italy, France and the Netherlands, do very little, says Professor Freeman. The Scandinavians appear to do "nothing whatsoever", she says, yet they always score well in international comparisons of academic performance.

Main text: Nicholas Pyke. Photographs: Geoff FranklinAlamy. Additional research: Tracey Thomas

Next week: Dyspraxia

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