THE Government's new academy for gifted children will be able to charge fees, in a move this week described as a "tax on talent".
Universities bidding to run the new National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth have been told that they should examine how they can charge fees for their services. Despite assurances that pupils from low-income backgrounds would not be excluded by the fee, the move immediately raised fears that talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds could miss out on specialist help.
The Government is basing its plan on the centre for talented youth at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, which charges more than pound;1,500 for a three-week residential summer school. A limited number of scholarships are available for children from low-income homes but families earning more than pound;27,000 per year are discouraged from applying.
Peter Lampl, education philanthropist and chairman of the Sutton Trust which runs schemes to help talented, disadvantaged pupils get into university, said that it would be difficult to raise funds from businesses and charities. "I have grave doubts that you can do it in the current (economic) climate.
"The Government should support students who cannot afford to pay, otherwise it risks becoming a programme mainly for well-off students, which is how these programmes operate in the States," he said. "You're probably talking about fees of pound;2-3,000. It's not an insignificant amount of money."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said: "What evidence is there that we can trust that universities will protect access for disadvantaged pupils? There is no evidence at all. The last thing we want is a middle-class academy." He said schools would be unwilling to bail out parents who could not afford fees.
Potential bidders have been told that they should "minimise the burden" on the taxpayer, and "should also consider the contribution that might be made to income through fees and charges associated with its services." They are also advised to try to attract funding from business and sponsors to become self-funding over time.
"It's a tax on talent," said John Bangs, education head at the National Union of Teachers. "They're setting up the academy on the cheap. It's another half-hearted, piecemeal initiative to which they haven't given enough thought."
The academy is intended to be the centrepiece of the Government's national strategy for talented pupils. It will cater for 11 to 19-year-olds in England who are academically gifted or excel in the creative arts or sport. They will be offered enrichment activities such as distance learning and residential courses.
Its first task will be to offer the top 5 per cent of academically-able pupils summer school places and other help. A register will be set up to identify those who could benefit, with a separate list of those in the top 1 per cent of the population.
The summer schools will be piloted next year.
After 2003, the academy will be expected to help every school educate the top 5-10 per cent of their ability range, including professional development for teachers and support for parents.
Ken Bore, director of the National Association for Gifted Children, said:
"Children should not be deterred because of lack of money. The academy is too important for that."
Ministers have indicated they would reject a bid from Old Swinford Hospital, a state boarding school in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, to be allowed to compete alongside universities for the right to host the academy.