Special needs of the bright and bored

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Fiona Marshall uncovers some new ideas on how to help gifted and talented children

Teachers-in-training are given plenty of advice on how to help the underachievers they will doubtless meet in their careers. But what about the other end of the spectrum? Chloe has just been awarded a place at one of London's top music academies to study guitar, voice and piano. The 12-year-old is also gifted at drama and has a TV series under her belt. Yet Chloe and her parents say that the music staff at her secondary school spent the whole of her first year ignoring her.

When the parents asked if there was any way Chloe could become involved in the school's musical life, or have extra opportunities to contribute or perform, the answer was no. An angry letter to the head of music was passed on to the headteacher. He sent a dismissive, tetchy response implying that the parents were known nuisances.

This by no means unique story was at one of the country's top selective state schools, leading a culture in which state schools let thousands of gifted and talented children slip through the net. As Estelle Morris, School Standards Minister, said at a recent conference: "Schools need to change their culture to identify the brightest children, in the same way that they target those with special needs."

Many teachers guiltily admit that gifted children have traditionally been left "to get on with it". That may now be changing. The Government is pumping pound;23 million into pilot programmes focusing on the specific needs of the highly able. This year has seen the first Gifted and Talented Programme (GTP), part of the Excellence in Cities scheme, which could enrol up to 40,000 youngsters from 460 schools in six areas.

At John Smeaton Community High School, Leeds, Cheryl Bryan is both the head of Geography and the Gifted and Talented Co-ordinator. Pupils are screened using an electronic register that pinpoints those who have attained above targets. Following DfEE guidelines, around 6-10 per cent fall into the category of gifted (defined as academically able) and talented (in areas such as music, sport and drama.) "We try to make sure these children have a curriculum which is challenging them, focusing on extension and enrichment within the classroom," Ms Bryan says. Years 11 and 12 also go to summer schools set up by local universities including Leeds Met, Newcastle and York. "I'm so pleased that children at the top end are at last being given support and encouragement instead of being just left to get on with it. Now we have the opportunity to make a difference," she says.

On top of the GT programme the Government has recommended that schools use more of their budget for GT. It also feels that Ofsted inspection should include an assessment of how well schools provide for the highly able.

In the report "Highly Able Children", the Education and Employment Committee recommends all LEAs appoint an adviser to a funded post with responsibility for the highly able.

Even without special GTP funding, many schools have already appointed gifted and talented co-ordinators, such as David Broadbridge at Dover Grammar School for Girls, Kent. He agrees that many children do miss out. "The net may exist at a lot of state schools, but it depends on how thick the mesh is as to whether they slip through or not."

Recently one girl at Dover Grammar passed 11 GCSEs at Grade A, a pupil was selected for the England U18 hockey squad, and another played the bassoon with the Kent County Youth Orchestra on their tour of Argentina.

This range of achievements hits on a key aspect of GT, where many are concerned to get away from emphasis on intellectual hothousing at the price of emotional and social success.

"We have to ensure that the chid isn't bored," Broadbridge says. "Equally, we have to be careful she's not labelled 'Prof' or 'Boff'."

Despite fears that hothousing will mar childhood years, many early achievers go on to find fulfilling work, make a lot of money, enjoy a range of hobbies, and have a satisfying emotional life. Sentimentality about a "natural" childhood misses that a bright child can be bored and stressed by underachievement. A talented one may be crying out for recognition, and deeply frustrated because the school curriculum doesn't allow enough time for what they do best.

The GT programme is not restricted to a narrowly academic approach. It uses a range of resources and methods. This can start with the screening process. Denise Crosland of North Manchester High School, co-ordinator for the gifted and talented in the city of Manchester, tries a variety of identification measures to select those with potential - national test results, reading ages, and asking school staff.

Peer identification is another important source. "Pupils do know who's good at something," she points out. "In the classroom we make sure the curriculum is more challenging, with flexible learning as well as extension papers in national tests. We're also offering master classes in a range of subjects including languages, design, electronics, and maths."

Where is all this leading? "Linear progression up the ladder of exams and qualifications is not the only way to meet the needs of the highly able - some youngsters may prefer to extend themselves sideways," says the report "Highly Able Children". Possible options include voluntary work, work placement, and more learning leading to a qualification.

Focusing on the special needs of the able challenges all kinds of ideas and expectations about education. A radical change in attitude is needed, the report says. "The development that would make the most difference in the education of the highly able is a change of attitude among teachers and LEAs, but perhaps even more importantly among society at large."

A traditional objection is that singling out the needs of the highly able is elitist and unfair. It is said that it can cause jealousy, bullying and problems with parents of those not selected. But gifted and talented children are entitled to have their needs met. There is also evidence that higher expectations for certain pupils have a positive knock-on effect, raising standards and morale across the whole school.

This is backed up by the positive results from the GTP pilot scheme. Philip Pengelly, GTP co-ordinator for Leeds, says none of the expected problems materialised, and that the programme had an energising effect on other children. This is especially true of those on the fringes of getting in, and who may well get in next time round.

Those involved in GT recognise that flexibility is key in selecting the cohort of the gifted and talented, and in adapting the curriculum to their needs.

The implications of this flexibility may alarm some teachers who already feel overloaded and overworked. But these problems could be addressed with proper funding and support, starting with teacher training which aims to raise more awareness of GT.

"It's wonderful what flexibility has achieved, and not only in terms of meeting the needs of individual pupils. It's brought schools together and forged very important links within the community," says Crosland.

More info from: www.dfee.gov.ukparentsmaintenanceo24 (National strategy for education of gifted children). www.dfee.gov.ukparentsmaintenanceo14 (Excellence in Cities education initiative). www.nagcbritain.org.uk (National Assocation for Gifted Children, 01908 673677; and Gifted Children Information Centre, 0121 705 4547)

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