We need to help children at both ends of the spectrum

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Gifted and talented children are being held back by a system which is too prescriptive and fails to reward creativity, reports

Elizabeth Buie, who also meets one of Scotland's most inspiring teachers of pupils at the other end of the ability range

A form of "faux egalitarianism" has left the Scottish education system frightened of pursuing excellence, according to the education dean of Glasgow University.

Professor Jim Conroy told a conference held by the Scottish Network for Able Pupils that Scotland should show more commitment to pursuing excellence and creativity at different ends of the spectrum.

But last week's conference also heard that setting and streaming were not the answers to the needs of the most able.

Professor Conroy was strongly critical of the marking schemes used by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which he described as "stultifying the imagination" and too prescriptive.

Speaking as a long-standing member of the SQA panel on religious and moral education, Professor Conroy said marking schemes "gave pupils marks for giving the correct answer rather than a creative answer".

If Scotland was to turn round a situation where 35 per cent of young people were dependent on the public purse, compared to the 22 per cent in England and Wales, then more had to be done to expand their horizons and open their minds, and this included the most able, he said.

"The concept of an able pupil is someone whose competence goes far beyond that of their peers, and there are all kinds of young people in our schools whose competence goes far beyond that of their peers in all sorts of abilities," he said.

"We should celebrate and nurture that and get past the false dichotomy of able pupils versus egalitarianism."

Professor Conroy continued: "We have to escape from some of the chains that constrain us. One of the important things is to recognise that, in a moral society, everyone thrives and part of being a moral society is that the able contribute to that."

Margaret Sutherland, project leader with SNAP, argued that people should not have to look for reasons in meeting the needs of able pupils - it should be done simply because they were able.

Where able pupils had dyslexic tendencies, Asperger's Syndrome or autism, the system seemed to be able to deal with the dyslexia, Asperger's or autism. "But where they are just able, that seems to be more difficult to cope with," she said.

Mrs Sutherland said two attitudes seemed to work against the most able group of pupils - firstly, that making special provision for them was pandering to an elite group because they would 'make it' anyway; secondly, that giving them a particular focus would increase social divisions.

"We have got equality and excellence all muddled up," she said. If the education system continued on its current path, then this was simply "polishing the glass ceiling" that prevented the most able from achieving their full potential, she added.

Mrs Sutherland cautioned against regarding setting pupils in ability groups as a solution. Some able pupils, particularly girls, found that the pace in a top set was sometimes too fast and did not allow them to go into a subject deeply enough, she pointed out.

She also noted that behaviour was sometimes used as a criterion for deciding which group a pupil should be in. But able pupils sometimes behaved badly because of frustration, which led to them being placed in a set that was lower than their ability.

Mrs Sutherland also took issue with streaming, as classes were usually organised according to pupils' ability in maths and language, which could disadvantage a child who was particularly gifted in a subject such as music.

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