Gifted pupils are facing a "postcode lottery" in getting support from schools to fulfil their potential, according to campaigners working to improve provision for the most able.
Although some schools are praised for stretching their most talented students, the demise of a national strategy has been blamed for creating a patchwork picture across the country, with attention often focused on pupils at the C-D borderline, leaving high achievers out in the cold.
Now a national charity has launched a manifesto aiming to address this variation in support and improve provision for gifted and talented children. Potential Plus UK has set out a five-point plan to make sure high-ability children get a fair deal from schools. The charity, formerly the National Association for Gifted Children, has called on schools to sign up to the manifesto in advance of this year's general election.
Wide variations in the level of support for the most able children have appeared since the national framework for gifted and talented students was scrapped in 2010, according to Denise Yates, chief executive of Potential Plus UK. She said that although some schools continued to develop strategies to ensure that pupils were stretched and challenged, others did not even identify their high-potential learners.
"Some schools are doing a fantastic job, but in others there is no structure at all," she added. "There is no gifted and talented register and there is no coordinator for the most able. It is a postcode lottery."
Ms Yates said a named person should be responsible for gifted and talented education at each school, in the same way that they have a special needs coordinator. "Many schools do not have an understanding of what it means to be a highly able child," she added.
And she argued that although it was understandable that schools focused on progress and results, this often resulted in teachers not doing enough to stretch able pupils.
"I don't blame them for that, but what it means is that in many schools the most-able programme has gone to the bottom of the agenda," she said. "If it was not for bodies like Ofsted saying every child's learning was important, support for the most able would have disappeared in some schools."
An Ofsted report in 2013 found that many schools did not set sufficiently high expectations for their most able pupils. The inspectorate found that two-thirds of students who reached level 5 in English and maths in primary school did not go on to get an A or A* at GCSE, and a quarter did not get a B.
Ms Yates said better training would enable teachers to identify gifted students and help them to reach their potential. She also called for a new special needs category of dual and multiple exceptionality for high-potential pupils who have SEN, such as children on the autistic spectrum.
Writing in last week's TES, Alex Quigley, director of learning and research at Huntington School in York, criticised gifted and talented programmes, saying they could "perpetuate a subtle bigotry" that favours children from better-off homes.
Rowena Gaston, chief executive of the National Association for Able Children in Education (Nace), said some schools were so intent on meeting floor targets that they did not have time to cater for able children.
"There is a tendency, particularly in secondaries, to get the below average to average, so there is a big focus on getting Ds to Cs. There is nothing wrong with that but it is not going to help the most able," she said.
At Harvills Hawthorn Primary School in Sandwell in the West Midlands, a recipient of Nace's Challenge Award, gifted children are identified through a combination of teacher observations, learning logs and test data, according to headteacher Harold McNeil.
Gifted children are encouraged to work independently from the rest of the class. "It might be the same task but the way in which they accomplish it will be very different," he said. "There will be less structure for them and they have to apply their skills and understanding."
Mr McNeil added that teachers planned lessons for the most able and then differentiated for other pupils, rather than planning for mid-ability children.
But identifying the most able helps to ensure that they do not miss out, according to Renata Joseph, acting deputy headteacher of Canons High School in north-west London, also a winner of a Nace Challenge Award.
"As a group they have particular needs and they need to be challenged, in the same way you would support a student who has special educational needs," she said.
Canons High runs in-service training for staff highlighting the need to stretch able children, and aims to foster a culture of aspiration. "It always begins with what is happening in the classroom and making sure that teachers are injecting challenge into their lessons," Ms Joseph said.
Hilary Lowe, Challenge Award adviser for Nace, said that although support for gifted children varied between schools, Ofsted's emphasis on ensuring the achievement of all pupils could help to drive improvements.
"All schools will be aware that there is a bigger focus now on whether all pupils are doing as well as we expect, and that has implicit implications for those pupils who should be our world-class performers," she said.
`Stretching our most able has a big impact across the wider school'
Chase Terrace Technology College in Staffordshire has produced a 24-page handbook setting out how teachers of each subject can identify and support their most able pupils. The school is one of only four Potential Plus UK Gold Award winners for its work in gifted and talented education.
Every department and every lesson should have differentiated objectives, according to James Tennant, the school's gifted and talented coordinator, and able students should be encouraged to work independently wherever possible.
"We feel that stretching our most able has a big impact across the wider school. If we can get the best out of them, we will raise attainment and stretch everybody," he says.
Mr Tennant says that between 5 and 10 per cent of children are in the "most able" category. But, including pupils who have a particular ability in a specific subject, about 500 of the school's 1,300 pupils are on one of its two gifted and talented registers.
Gifted pupils are encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities and also to meet in cluster groups with other able students.
"It's an opportunity for them to help and support each other and talk about the fears they may have," Mr Tennant adds. "It's important to recognise high achievement and, if you have identified it, you have a duty to do the very best that you can."
A plan for progression
Potential Plus UK's manifesto sets out ways for schools to improve support for gifted and talented children:
- Identify high-potential learners and how to meet their needs.
- Provide training for staff on supporting gifted children and commit to eradicating underachievement.
- Create a new special needs category of dual and multiple exceptionality for pupils who have SEN and high potential.
- Work with government to provide a coordinated approach and improve the quality and quantity of provision.
- Ensure parents and carers know what the school offers and how they can support their child at home.