THE school inspectorate's criticisms of the Excellence in Cities scheme have raised fresh doubts about the Government's strategy for gifted and talented children.
Programmes for high-ability children are at the heart of the pound;800 million initiative, which now involves 59 local authorities. But their effect on test scores appears to have been slight (TES, May 30). Earlier this year, the chief inspector, David Bell, commented that tuition for gifted and talented children was too often detached from ordinary classroom work.
But one Manchester head believes that the real problem lies with an over-tight definition of what is meant by gifted and talented. At St Kentigern's Roman Catholic primary, 43 per cent of children are on the school's gifted and talented register.
"The Department for Education and Skills has a big hang-up with identification," said headteacher Paul Jackson. "I have a big hang-up with what we offer these children."
St Kentigern's is not a leafy suburban school. Just over half its pupils qualify for free meals. Nevertheless, more than 90 per cent of its 11-year-olds reach level 4 in maths and science. Jackson argues that this success stems from making the programme as inclusive as possible. "We believe that all our children are talented," he said.
Jackson is the headteacher consultant for the gifted and talented strand of Manchester's EiC project. When he talks to other heads about identifying target children he tells them to see the Government's 5-10 per cent guideline as a starting point.
"Our overriding consideration is the teachers' knowledge of the children," he said. Test scores are just one indicator of ability. At St Kentigern's, children can be nominated by their peers, or they can self-nominate. "We have a child who is on both the gifted and talented and the special needs registers," said Jackson.
He points out that the traditional definition is focused on academic ability across a range of subjects. But the inclusion of the word talented should widen that definition. Talent may be in sport, music, art or drama.
Jackson has steered clear of the bolt-on, off-site sessions for small groups of children that have been adopted by many EiC areas. "Teachers in a whole-class situation can use higher-order questions," he said. Stretching the most able at St Kentigern's also involves looking at the way children are grouped and about proper differentiation of activities.
Jackson has also found a way to give his teachers more time to explore the subject material they are teaching. He has thinned out the overcrowded curriculum by focusing on questions and topics. "It's nigh on impossible to cover everything," he said.
In history, this might involve teaching the Tudors and Stuarts by looking at the question "How successful a king was Henry VIII?" In geography, one class looked at rivers by doing a study of the Mersey.
Some older teachers might recognise this technique. It is the topic-based approach common in the 1960s and 1970s - a teaching method reviled by critics such as Chris Woodhead, who have described it as "death by project".
But Paul Jackson defends the methodology. "It is clear, it is focused; there is nothing woolly about it," he said.
St Kentigern's children are not sticking in pictures and copying from library books. For the river project, the group took a trip along the course of the Mersey and examined aerial photos and local reports.
The critical point was that all the children were involved, but those with the interest and ability to take the topic further had the time and the space to do so.
Visiting inspectors have given the green light to Jackson's methods. "They told us that we have the freedom to adapt, provided we can demonstrate quality learning," he said.
Those who got further than the executive summary of the EiC report will know that Ofsted came to the same conclusions. "The key issue in both (primary and secondary) phases is how to improve what is done for higher-attaining pupils in ordinary lessons," said the inspectors.
THE national strategy to improve the identification, education and support of gifted and talented children was introduced in September 1999.
It currently operates in 1,000 secondary schools and 400 primaries and provides an intensive support programme to help disadvantaged able children.
The main elements of the programme are:
* identifying the 5-10 per cent gifted and talented cohort in each school
* introducing an in-school teaching and learning programme for gifted and talented children
* establishing out-of-hours study support opportunities for those pupils.