Indulgent elitism or an inspirational agenda that raises standards across the board? Claire Sanders seeks the truth about education for able children
Twenty-seven years ago the headteacher of a small primary school in Berkshire appointed the country's first co-ordinator for able children.
That young teacher was Deborah Eyre, now a professor and head of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick University, the Government's fast-expanding flagship for able pupils.
"That school had a lot of very bright children and we wanted to make sure they were challenged," says Professor Eyre, as she casts her mind back from the spacious and modern buildings of Warwick University to that small Berkshire classroom in 1979. "That may seem an obvious idea now, but it was considered strange back then."
As she set the children new and more demanding work, Professor Eyre noticed something strange. "The children that flourished were not necessarily the ones you would expect to do well," she says. "They were not the teacher-pleasers or the ones who always participated. One or two of them were the potentially naughty children and some were the less affluent. They were bright kids who enjoyed the more challenging work; it motivated them, made them more enthusiastic."
She noticed something else, too: by targeting work at the top of the ability range, she found the whole class did better.
In the intervening years gifted and talented education - with its aim of providing extra support and challenges for the top 10 per cent of the ability range - has entered the mainstream and forms a key part of the education bill currently working its way through Parliament. Today, the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (Nagty) has 83,000 members aged 11 to 19 and supports the work of teacher co-ordinators in schools across the country.
Professor Eyre remembers well the headteacher who appointed her - Johanna Raffan, who went on to become a founder member of the National Association for Able Children in Education (Nace), which was set up in 1984 to support the teachers of very able children. "Over the years I have seen GT education grow from a hobby horse of a few teachers to a national movement," she says.
However, for some it remains highly controversial. Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University believes the whole idea of singling out bright children is flawed. "Children have many different talents and learn at different rates," he says. "To single children out in this way is iniquitous." For John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, GT education remains a "bolt-on". "What schools really need is funding to enable teachers to have small classes, not added extras," he says.
Professor Eyre insists that many of the criticisms of GT education stem from misunderstandings. "It is true that initially we did follow a model where children were identified, singled out and taken out of the classroom," she says. "But over time we shifted to an inclusive model. We learned that it was better to develop a challenging curriculum and then stretch pupils in the classroom. This not only ensures that able children reach their potential, but raises standards across the board."
Today this inclusive model is internationally famous and known as the "English model", according to Johanna Raffan, who now carries out research and training programmes for Nace. "Our notion of GT education is often contrasted with the Russian approach," she says. "I have run GT workshops in Russia and found that when you ask teachers there if they have taught gifted children they are quick to say 'yes', whereas English teachers are hard pushed to think of any."
She believes this is because the Russians search for talent. And in Russia very able children are taken out of school and hothoused. "We have found that the inclusive model produces a more rounded child."
For Professor Eyre, the education bill, with its emphasis on personalised learning, is a milestone. "It is the natural extension of an inclusive, curriculum-based approach to able children. It allows schools to focus on the needs of individual children, both those falling behind as well as the very able," she says. Crucially, it proposes a national register of gifted and talented children at 11 (the end of key stage 2), the idea being to guarantee that the top 5 per cent of pupils nationally join Nagty. Last year official figures showed that 40 per cent of schools had never referred a child to Nagty. "There is still a great deal of ideological opposition out there," says Professor Eyre.
Schools will be expected to nominate pupils to Nagty, and the academy has developed a complex set of assessment criteria, including Sats results, Year 7 cognitive abilities test (Cat) scores, and teachers' reports.
Broadly gifted children are those with the most promise and ability in academic subjects; the "talented" are those with the greatest potential in sports or the arts.
A short bus ride from Brixton tube in south London is an inner-city school where nine out of 10 pupils are Afro-Caribbean, more than a third are on free school meals, a high percentage are from single-parent families, and 27 per cent speak English as an additional language. And yet St Martin-in-the-Fields high school for girls in Lambeth is one of 18 ambassador schools for Nagty. Deputy head Denise Davies firmly believes that the emphasis on GT education has been crucial in raising standards for all pupils.
The school began to put together its GT strategy in 1998; the following year the Government provided funding through the Excellence in Cities initiative and the scheme took off. "I cannot emphasise enough how important that money was," says Mrs Davies. "It allowed us to fund our co-ordinator properly, to integrate gifted and talented education into our teaching and learning strategy, and to provide enrichment activities such as chess and Japanese."
Teachers are encouraged to ensure that all pupils are stretched. "I've just been observing a lesson where I felt the teacher was not pushing the more able children," says Mrs Davies. "I've made a note of several opportunities that were missed and will talk to the teacher later."
The school is recognised as one of London's most improved schools and is in the top 5 per cent nationally compared to schools with similar intakes.
The Nagty register, however, has proved problematic. "When we became an ambassador school we did not have a single child on it (the register),"
says Doris Sweet, the school's GT co-ordinator. "We found the criteria complex, and our children coming in at 11 did not seem to fit." Now, two years on, the school has seven Nagty members and has applied this year to have a further 11 accepted. "I think the register has become more teacher-friendly" says Mrs Sweet. The more broadly defined GT stream - which covers the top 10 per cent in any given school as opposed to the top 5 per cent nationally - has been easier to work with. "Every teacher in this school has an idea of who the gifted children are; it is a list that is constantly added to, that varies from subject to subject."
Phoebe Edosomwan from Year 11 and Mercy Weidenmuller, Year 8, are two gifted pupils at St Martin. Phoebe, who describes herself as a local Brixton girl, is quietly spoken, confident and revels in school. "I am never, ever bored in lessons," she says. Her favourite subjects are maths and science, she has visited Cambridge University as part of the Government's Aimhigher initiative, and has set her heart on studying medicine.
Mercy is equally enthusiastic about school. A scientist, like Phoebe, she is learning Latin in her lunchtimes and after school is a member of the chess club. She also attends maths classes at weekends. One of the school's few Nagty members, she feels she is too young to take part in the academy's summer schools, which are open to any member aged between 11 and 16. "I go on to their website a bit and read the newsletter," she says.
She has also taken a firm stand against any attempts by fellow pupils to stereotype her and her friends. "We set up our own 'neeks' club, a sort of mixture of nerds and geeks. It is just a bit of fun," she says.
More than 100 miles away in Woodbridge, Suffolk, is a very different school. Farlingaye high, also a Nagty ambassador school, has one of the largest geographical catchment areas in the country, with 11 feeder primary schools. Next door is Woodbridge school, an independent secondary competing for pupils.
Around 400 of Farlingaye's pupils - 25 per cent - are considered able, gifted and talented and about 100 of these are members of Nagty. "We take a very broad view of GT," says Amanda Page, the gifted and talented co-ordinator. The school stresses the importance of the pastoral side of GT, with a strong emphasis on mentoring, sometimes by other pupils through a buddy system and sometimes by teachers. For Ms Page this often takes the form of what she calls "stolen moments". "I keep an eye on certain children, chat to them in the corridors at lunchtimes or registration if I am free," she says. "I check that they are not being bullied, ask them how they are coping, ensure they are OK."
Farlingaye has a huge spreadsheet of extra-curricular activities which include chess, the Japanese strategy game of Go and debating. However, like St Martin, it sends no pupils to the Nagty summer schools. "They are just too expensive," says Ms Page. Three-week summer schools can cost up to pound;735, although Nagty does run a bursary scheme.
For Professor Eyre, GT education is here to stay, but faces challenges.
"With the introduction of the national register we must ensure that disadvantaged children are fully represented," she says. Professor Smithers describes the register as one of the most "demoralising" aspects of GT education. "Imagine what it is like for the 95 per cent of school children who are told that they are not gifted or talented enough to be on it," he says.
Professor Eyre acknowledges that this could be an issue. "But it is a list that can always be added to," she says. "It is not the case that you are put on it at the end of key stage 2 and that is it. What I think no one realised initially was the empowering effect of being included and the aspirational impact. I know of one girl whose membership has been featured in local papers both here and in Pakistan; it has been enormously important for her, boosting her self confidence and performance at school."
She points out that GT programmes have been particularly beneficial for disadvantaged children in the Excellence in Cities initiative. And she describes the decision in 1999 by the then education secretary Estelle Morris to pilot and fund GT programmes in deprived inner-city areas as "inspired". "It was counter-intuitive at the time as many said that these schools simply did not have very able pupils," she says. "In fact, children flourished on the programme." She says that the summer schools are not the main business of Nagty. "They cater for 1,000 out of our 83,000 members,"
she says. "Our main work is done online, where we connect pupils and offer them more challenging work."
The academy has links with 40 universities. "Nagty acts as a conduit or portal," says Professor Eyre. "The advantage for the universities is that they can build a relationship with the pupils who take their courses."
Just over a quarter of a century since she began specialising in the education of able children, Professor Eyre has a new aim. "I want all teachers to be confident to teach gifted and talented children," she says.
"GT education is not about the special needs of any one group; it is about raising standards overall and equality of opportunity."
SPOTTING POTENTIAL IN THE EDUCATION WHITE PAPER
* Promotes personalised learning, a boost to the gifted and talented programme as it will encourage "effective, tailored teaching" for every pupil - whatever their ability.
* Proposes developing a national register of GT pupils using key stage 2 Sats results and CAT scores from every school. This will allow all who fall within the top 5 per cent to join Nagty and benefit from its student academy.
* Promises to target support for GT students from ethnic minority backgrounds and other vulnerable learners, including looked-after children; will provide up to pound;1 million a year to match-fund business and philanthropic contributions to Nagty's "Go for Gold" scheme.
* Pledges guaranteed access to expert guidance, plus additional training in GT provision for all primary and secondary schools.
* All schools to be challenged by school improvement partners and Ofsted to offer adequate GT provision.
* Intends to make it easier for pupils to accelerate through the system and to recognise early achievement in league tables.
* Makes key stage 3 a priority for improvement, including the development of "our most gifted young athletes".
* Promotes new Nagty non-residential summer schools.
Source: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, published October 2005
'THEY'RE JUST TEENAGERS'
Laurie Pycroft hit the headlines last month as the 16-year-old who braved animal rights extremists to launch Pro-test, the organisation that supports animal testing. In the media coverage that followed it emerged that Laurie is a member of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, which he describes as a "step in the right direction" for able pupils.
For Laurie (pictured), who has Asperger's syndrome, the academy has become a crucial link with education. He is currently taking time out of school - which felt like a "straitjacket" - and is educating himself online using many of Nagty's courses. He hopes to go to university to study medicine. He is considering Oxford, where he has done so much to generate support for the new science laboratory the university is attempting to build.
Laurie first became aware of Nagty when he was 14. "I can't remember how I heard about it," he says. "It certainly was not through the school". He thinks he came across it on the web. He applied and was accepted on the basis of his Cat scores and his GCSE results, which he describes as "not as good as they could have been". Since enrolling he has been on two summer schools at Imperial College, London. "They were fantastic and I made good friends there." He did not receive any sponsorship or financial support.
He has also made friends online through Nagty. "I just find the people I meet through the academy and the work I can do online with them really stimulating," he says. "I would not say that it has fuelled my interests, more that it has provided me with a place to engage my interests." The academy has links with 40 universities that provide online courses. Laurie has already completed courses on neurology and neurochemistry. "I do the courses at my own pace," he says. "And I follow my own interests."
For Professor Eyre, director of Nagty, the social side of the academy is crucial. "Many members do make good friends through us," she says. "They find people they can really engage with and become freer about delighting in their intelligence."
However, she scotches ideas about Nagty members being troubled loners. "The joy of the academy is that its members are as mixed as the school population as a whole," she says. "I had some university lecturers recently saying to me how surprised they were that some of the kids at the summer schools could be a bit naughty. Well, they're just teenagers - with all that that can entail."