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Young, gifted and in need of help

A NATIONAL initiative in England and Wales addresses for the first time the needs and challenges of gifted children. It could owe something to the political exigencies of a looming general election. But the Gifted and Talented Programme (GTP), currently pumping pound;23 million into 460 secondaries in six cities and due to be extended from next month, is none the less welcome.

The pilot scheme is a deliberate and overdue attempt to readdress the traditional spending imbalance between the learning difficulties end of the spectrum, and the equivalent special needs of the gifted (academically) and the talented (music, sport, drama).

The GTP co-ordinator with a pound;1.4 million budget for 43 Leeds schools says: "A comprehensive education should mean that all pupils get the best chances." Who would argue with that? Part of the Excellence in Cities scheme, the GTP involves the selection of 10 per cent of pupils in each school, and must include under-achievers. Flexibility is inbuilt, and no pupil is excluded if they have the motivation and find they can keep up.

Children nominate three areas in which they are set targets: in two strong and one weaker subject. They agree these personal targets, and also must attend at least one new class or club. For teachers, the challenge is to ensure that all activities are sufficiently stretching.

Extra lessons or clubs within the school are available, at lunchtime or after hours. There may be masterclasses in maths, musical composition, modern languages, chemistry clubs, debating societies, drama or poetry groups, sculpture workshops.

Carrot and stick are twin features, with the double aim of making children work harder and broadening their horizons. Those who achieve their targets are entitled to go on summer courses which may be educational or just fun. These could be Saturday workshops, field trips, university sumer schools - covering anything from astronomy to icon painting.

In Scotland, since HMI's 1993 report, The Education of Able Pupils, there has been careful sectoral thinking on this formerly taboo topic. A master's module, Able Pupils, is now available from Glasgow University. Some local authorities are, perhaps a trifle self-consciously, developing their own strategies, in co-operation with the Scottish Network for Able Pupils.

Bureaucratic discussions on identification, enrichment and extension programmes, acceleration, mentor schemes, grouping, extended homework - these are the stuff of current internal policy papers, occasionally being presented for consideration by Scotland's councillors. Perhaps the needs of the gifted pupil are becoming politically correct at local level.

This pragmatic approach is still conspicuous by its absence in diktats from the Mound. The great "Vision" from the Scottish Executive in January which is enshrined in the education Act includes a new duty on authorities to provide education which allows pupils to develop to their fullest potential.

Bland stuff, sure not to ripple the waters, and the nearest you get to any focus on special needs at the upper end. The role of school boards, local authority transport arrangements and parental involvement receive more coverage.

Likewise Sam Galbraith, in launching for consultation last March what in effect is Scotland's education development plan, remarked that "school education must prepare all our young people for their future". Sure, but Mr Galbraith's text, with its emphasis on key outcomes, key inputs and key stakeholders still manages to suggest that expectations of excellence may remain acceptably qualified by the school's postal code.

A little national attention (and cash) for gifted and talented children wherever they are might not come amiss.

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