Not so fast!

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The Government will spend pound;45 million over the next three years on its Gifted and Talented programme. This interest in the top 10 per cent is welcome but assumptions underlying the current policy make the programme potentially damaging, especially for young people with mathematical potential. The policy is challenged by experts in the education of able pupils in a recent report, Acceleration or Enrichment? Serving the needs of the top 10 per cent in school mathematics.

Able maths pupils need the challenge of a curriculum that: lays a solid foundation for subsequent study; expects a deeper understanding of them than of their peers; provides opportunity to work on extension material that builds on and enriches curriculum work but avoids the lazy option of simply doing advanced standard work early; challenges their interest, stamina and imagination.

In contrast, acceleration (a strategy where standard curriculum work is tackled months or years ahead of time) encourages short-term gains at the expense of long-term growth.

The structure of the national curriculum encourages parents and officials to accept the idea of acceleration. But what is the point of an 11-year-old getting a grade C on intermediate tier GCSE maths if there are no long-term benefits?

Four different sources agree on the undesirability of such schemes: experienced maths teachers from schools that produce a steady stream of talented young mathematicians; mathematicians in universities who can reflect on their personal experience and that of the many talented students they have taught; experts who have, over many years, worked with thousands of talented young mathematicians; and maths education researchers and eductional psychologists. It is unprecedented for these groups to speak with one voice. Yet they are united in seeing the present schemes as naive and in advocating the alternative of "enrichment for added depth".

The arguments against acceleration are:

* Instead of laying solid foundations and developing healthy attitudes, acceleration encourages shallow and premature growth.

* Current policy starts by "identifying" 5 to 10 per cent of children as "gifted" and so encourages young children (and their parents) to think in terms of unhelpful labels.

* The related schemes cause extensive disruption in secondary schools, with no long-term pay-off.

* They force able young people into doing much of their mathematics "on their own", so that when bad habits develop they go uncorrected and eventually obstruct progress.

* They take children out of their peer group in a subject where they have much to contribute (and much to gain in peer respect).

* They guarantee that, at the crucial ages of 16 to 19, when intellectual growth moves up a gear, there is no appropriate maths programme for them to pursue.

* Experience indicates that the long-term success of accelerated pupils is no better, and frequently worse, than that of peers who were not accelerated.

Marginal acceleration can sometimes be constructive and for some exceptional individuals a school may see no alternative. But acceleration is an unsuitable basis for a national strategy for able children.

Tony Gardiner is reader in maths and maths education at the University of Birmingham. Copies of Acceleration or Enrichment? can be obtained from him, tel: 0121 414 6580. E-mail:

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