Labour's swing to the bright

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
All teachers would be taught how to identify exceptionally bright children and schools would have to publish their policies for gifted pupils if Labour wins the next election, under new party proposals.

A document by MP David Jamieson, a member of the Commons Education Select Committee, is "highly likely" to become official policy, and represents the first attempt to formulate a strategy for educating children whose intelligence or talent places them in the top 5 per cent of the population.

The paper says the Government has resorted to "the simplistic device of selection", and the Assisted Places Scheme, which "has only served to inhibit and mask the real need to have a proper co-ordinated policy for gifted children in all schools".

Mr Jamieson says the Labour plans are intended to ensure that the potential of clever children, particularly from poor backgrounds, is not wasted - an issue close to the heart of education spokesman David Blunkett. But the ideas are also likely to be seen as another attempt to dispel the impression that education under Labour would involve a "levelling down".

The document suggests that if parents were confident that the needs of clever children would be met, then they would not use the private sector, or be forced to consider schools miles from home. The proposals may also be interpreted as an attempt to defuse the still-festering row over shadow social security secretary Harriet Harman's decision to send her son to a distant, selective opted-out school.

Teachers would be trained to recognise exceptional ability. All initial teacher-training courses should prescribe a minimum time for identifying gifted pupils (at present, such training varies widely) and in-service training courses would be accredited through the Open University and Labour's proposed University for Industry.

Every school would be obliged to draw up a policy on able children and publish this in its prospectus, and should also designate a staff member as co-ordinator of the policy. This post would be separate from that of special needs co-ordinator. LEAs would employ specialist advisers and the Office for Standards in Education would be charged with inspecting both LEA policy on gifted children and classroom practice.

Other plans include allowing such children to start degree courses while remaining with their peers, extension classes and Saturday clubs, and using video-conferencing and the Internet to exchange ideas.

Parents of gifted children whose needs are not being met at school, says Mr Jamieson, are often put under "extreme pressure from their own child, who is likely to be bombarding them with constant questions that they may not be able to answer". The paper proposes local bodies to arbitrate in any dispute between parents and schools.

It advocates a highly differentiated curriculum to accommodate the special needs of the able, allowing them to study at a faster pace, and "recognises the limits of mixed-ability teaching". Last week, Mr Blunkett endorsed the Worlds Apart ? report published by OFSTED, which suggested that British underachievement in maths could be remedied by more whole-class, mixed-ability teaching, as used in the Pacific Rim countries.

Mr Jamieson denied that this was a conflict; what we should be learning from the East, he said, was to refuse to be complacent about failure, but we did not have to copy their suspicion of the exceptional.

"In Japan, for instance, they have a saying, 'If a nail sticks up, you knock it down', which sounds extraordinary to us. They have a lower rate of failure, and the average score is much higher, but there are fewer very high fliers. "

But there is also a widespread distrust of intelligence in Britain, he said, an anti-educational culture that infects parents and children. "Linguists have pointed out that it is impossible to find translations in Japanese or European languages for all our derogatory words for high intelligence, such as 'boffin', 'smartass', 'egghead' or 'too clever by half'. Politicians should be trying to change these attitudes rather than constantly blaming teachers."

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