Celebrating the achievements of a budding athlete, wannabe musician or dazzling chess player changes the culture of a school. The biggest problem is identifying the potential high-fliers early enough. Martin Whittaker and Nicholas Pyke report
There has always been some help available for high-flying mathematicians or gifted flautists, particularly if they are lucky enough to meet the right teachers or come from well-connected homes. Chance has played as much a part as natural ability for inner-urban children.
Now the Excellence in Cities initiative is hoping to shorten the odds a little by establishing the first systematic programme to identify and support students with potential.
The label attached to the gifted and talented scheme tries to make a distinction between those who excel in academic subjects (the gifted), and those who excel in music, acting and sport (the talented). The rules for taking part are not rigid and depend in a large part on teachers' personal assessments: each school is asked to look at the top 5 to 10 per cent of their pupils and see what help they can offer.
They can look to a variety of sources. Some independent schools - Manchester grammar, for example, and St Paul's boys school in London - offer local comprehensives school students extra tuition in maths, science or the classics. West London's Brunel University runs out-of-hours classes for able mathematicians and physicists from inner London boroughs. And the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth based at Warwick University runs short courses and web-based programmes.
Highams Park school is a large 11 to 18 mixed comprehensive in north-east London. It is heavily over-subscribed; its GCSE results are well above national and education authority averages. The Department for Education and Skills holds the school up as a notable success and its students are invited to national conferences on the gifted and talented initiative as delegates.
Every curriculum area has a teacher within that subject area with responsibility for gifted and talented students. Staff spend two days a year shadowing the most able pupils through their school day, then they discuss that learning experience.
As well as supporting its most academic students with enrichment and extension activities, the school also has a strong performing arts department. which mounts productions from Brecht to 150-strong musicals.
The school has even spawned a chart-topping band, Blazin' Squad, whose single, "Crossroads" made it to number one. But despite the trappings of fame, including jetting off to South Africa to make a video, its 10 members still returned to Highams Park last year to sit their exams. Between them, they gained 66 GCSEs. Some also applied to do A-levels just in case the bid for pop stardom failed.
Juliet Boughton, the school's gifted and talented co-ordinator, says the band has helped to raise aspirations throughout the school: "There's a strong sense that it's cool to succeed in every area."
The Government published its strategy to support gifted and talented pupils four years ago. The DfES says the initiative has since helped around 1,000 maintained secondary schools through the Excellence in Cities programme, and benefited more than 1,000 primaries.
Vicki Walsh-Atkins, gifted and talented co-ordinator for Birmingham education authority, says that while the criteria for gifted children are clear, spotting the talented is more difficult. "The fact that a youngster is emerging as talented may be because of the home background or middle-class aspirations," she says.
"But in the same cohort, there may be the Yehudi Menuhins who have never been discovered because nobody ever put a violin in their hands. And that's a huge challenge for us - finding talent."
Birmingham has six networks of schools involved in the initiative, with a co-ordinator in each school, a budget for supporting pupils, and continuing professional development for teachers. This year, the city is running programmes to identify youngsters with potential in theatre arts by working alongside professionals and learning how they spot the right qualities.
Vicki Walsh-Atkins says that for many students, "developing a talent is important in terms of raising their self-esteem and their potential to make something of their lives, and go on a proper lifelong learning path."
Bishop Challoner Catholic school in Kings Heath, Birmingham, has made provision for its most able pupils in all subjects since 1999. It has a number of after-hours enhancement activities including a Lego club, a joint technology and maths venture, masterclasses in maths, and early entry classes for GCSE.
Other projects include a competition for Year 9s to design and build an aeroplane, while the school's more gifted artists in every year have been working with an artist in residence. Projects include publishing a magazine, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, developing links with Birmingham University and developing after-school science clubs for Year 7s.
The school is a specialist sports college and has national champions and England squad players in judo, rugby and basketball. When staff identify a particular sporting talent, they channel funds to support it.
The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth has just won a pound;500,000 grant from the Gatsby Foundation to help newly qualified teachers increase their understanding of how to teach gifted and talented young people. Its director, Professor Deborah Eyre, says schools that adopt the gifted and talented strategy properly will see benefits to the whole school, not just the high achievers.
"Part of the strategy is about talent-spotting," she said. "It's not about saying there's a ring-fenced group of children who are gifted and we provide something for them and ignore everybody else.
"It's about looking at the school's curriculum and asking: how does that curriculum provide opportunities to excel across a broad range of subjects? The schools that have been successful have been very open-minded about offering something new or different, and finding people who reveal their abilities, even though they haven't traditionally been thought of as high-fliers."