I'll be staying off these GTs, thank you

5th May 2006 at 01:00
My Nectar card gives my local Sainsbury's a record of everything I buy there. Transport for London can trace exactly where I travel from my Oyster pre-pay card. My internet service provider knows every website I have visited.

I shrug my shoulders and reflect that these are the downsides of a computerised society that makes shopping, travelling, and seeking information much easier than they used to be. Some people - notably the Observer's Henry Porter - get very exercised about the Government holding people's DNA on a database. I tend to agree with ministers that it simplymakes it easier to catch criminals and that if my DNA is ever recorded, the police will then be less likely to bother me about a crime I haven't committed.

Yet I find something distinctly creepy about new Labour's latest wheeze, a national register of gifted and talented children. From the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds, it will identify the most able 5 per cent (30,000) children each year. State secondary heads will be given the names of children attending their schools, and asked to monitor their progress. University admissions officers will be able, as The Times put it in a recent report, to "pursue" them.

Data about how brilliant you are ought, I suppose, to be more acceptable than data about your purchases of chicken tikka masala in Sainsbury's or your visits to Miss Whiplash's website. We can't possibly object to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's ambition that these children should be "stretched", can we?

But it all reminds me of Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy, first published in 1958. The book is a dystopian satire in which the narrator looks back from 2034 in a society where comprehensive schools never happened. In this alternative world, jobs are allocated according to IQ, and children are tested every other year. Everyone's IQ is held centrally and adults can apply at five-yearly intervals to be tested again.

Eventually, however, psychologists learn to identify, with great precision, a child's ability from babyhood, even the womb. It became, wrote Young, "sensible to segregate outstanding children from the ruck in separate kindergartens and primary schools".

I do not accuse Ms Kelly of such horrible ambitions. I accept that her main intention is to increase social mobility by improving the chances of bright children from poor homes. As she said, the database cannot be used for selection at 11 because children's names will be released only after they have started secondary school. But I remain uneasy.

Secondary schools should already have access to primary-school records. Why do we need this national database? Why are these particular children to be singled out for special attention? Why are they to be taken off for gifted and talented programmes - or GTs as they are racily called?

I worry about what this programme says about our attitude to human abilities and talents. People draw analogies with football or music: if we try to spot and develop young talent in these areas, why not for academic ability? The answer is that football and music are specific talents which usually require high levels of training if they are to develop properly.

Tests at 11 reveal more generalised ability. We take an arbitrary dividing line at an arbitrary moment and define anyone above it as "gifted and talented". But people can be gifted in all sorts of ways.

They can be gifted gardeners, gifted visual artists, gifted cooks, gifted comedians, even, dare I say it, gifted journalists, and these gifts may flower and develop at any stage of life.

We should not think of the gifted and talented as a discrete entity. Many children have gifts or talents - perhaps the majority, perhaps even all of them. Schools should nurture talents across the board, not just among an arbitrarily chosen 5 per cent.

Plato talked of "the children of gold". Among all children, I believe, you will find traces of gold.

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