Gifted pupils need help too

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Elizabeth Buie and David Henderson report on the latest classroom thinking from the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association in Perth

Parents of gifted or talented children are sometimes frightened to admit they are having problems in class, a seminar at the Scottish Educational Research Association conference in Perth was told last week.

"It is not always the case that things are wonderful for children or parents if they have gifted children. For some children, it's quite a lonely experience in terms of their learning," Margaret Sutherland of Glasgow University said.

Mrs Sutherland, a former primary teacher, is part of the Scottish Network for Able Pupils which tries to develop greater understanding of the particular needs of able children. The network is backing the new Scottish approach, which for the first time places gifted children within the scope of additional support needs.

Such children were "languishing" in the early years of primary, Mrs Sutherland said, because teachers failed to recognise the special needs of able pupils, who could perhaps read by the age of four. Many thought they "would get on anyway".

Some teachers in areas of deprivation declared they had no gifted or able pupils, a view Mrs Sutherland said would suggest they would never find any, even if they were there. As a former dance teacher, she had discovered that children from disadvantaged communities could be excellent performers once they had been given the chance.

Opportunities mattered in determining ability yet far too often ability was narrowly defined by IQ tests and attainment. "We need to nurture all-round ability, not just narrow academic ability that children display," she said.

The general view of ability in nursery or primary was of articulate, confident and mature children who learn to read early, "are born between September and December", and have a good general knowledge.

Other children who might not be instantly recognisable as gifted may have summer birthdays, be quiet and withdrawn or dishevelled. "They may be equally able and that is why if we do not have an opportunity curriculum, these children get lost," Mrs Sutherland said.

A small study of gifted nursery and P1 pupils showed that three out of four recognised that they were good at things. They wanted others of similar ability to talk to and someone to listen to their reading.

But removing children from their peers, or "hothousing", did not work.

Gifted pupils could be turned off or false expectations created among parents.

Lorna Hamilton, Edinburgh University, said her study of four contrasting secondaries showed that gifted young people were often excluded from discussions about their futures. This could lead to confusion and frustration.

In high schools, ability was mostly determined by attainment in written tests. Many teachers had a limited view of intelligence and ability and were less focused on potential.

As one English teacher reported: "Ability is either there or not there.

There are always things you can teach a child to become more able at. You can teach a child to become more able at punctuating a sentence but there is no big movement in terms of ability. I think it is impossible to improve ability."

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