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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
What constitutes a gifted pupil?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker
Is your child gifted and talented? Of course they are.

You knew that the moment they took their first step, scrawled their earliest stick-figure painting, won the egg and spoon race, or displayed scientific curiosity by asking persistently: "Where do babies come from?"

Yet, as most teachers would tell you, parents are not always the best judges of how bright their own children are compared to their peers.

So who should decide? What evidence should they use? And what happens after a child is identified as gifted or talented?

This week the government wrote to schools in England asking them to propose the names of the country's brightest pupils for a national register of the top 5% of all pupils.

If ability is evenly distributed across all schools that means identifying between one and two pupils from each class of 30 (you might want to check my maths, I lack talent in that department).

Put another way, it is equivalent to 200,000 pupils across all English secondary schools.

Now, of course, there are plenty of arguments about where the dividing line between "generally bright and able" and "gifted and talented" should lie.

Grammar schools

The old grammar school system (of which more in a moment) tended to isolate the top 20-25% for special treatment.

By contrast, the National Association for Gifted Children says this category should only apply to the top 2%. That would be more like one child in a year group rather than one per class.

The approach taken to gifted children will, inevitably, depend on where the dividing line is drawn

The government has drawn the line at 5%, although its recent White Paper, which spelled out the plans for the national register, did not explain why.

Of course, the question of how to measure intelligence is one of the more fraught issues in English educational history. Just think about the debates about IQ testing and the old 11-plus examination.

In the letter to schools, the government says its starting point is the results in the national tests in mathematics and English taken by pupils at the end of primary schools.

The government now has a national database of pupil performance that allows it to identify the names of those pupils whose combined scores put them in the top 5%.

In an attempt to nudge some schools whom ministers regard as moving too slowly in identifying gifted pupils, it has asked head teachers to use this list as the starting point for spotting the most able 5%.

The government is careful to say that there is no automatic read-across from the maths and English scores to equivalent giftedness. It asks schools to take other evidence - class-work, teacher assessment, other tests - into account as well.

So even schools without a single pupil in the top 5% of test scores (and there will be some) are being encouraged to see if they have anyone who should be on the register.

'Pushy' middle classes

Ministers are concerned that middle-class parents are often quicker to press for their child to be identified as gifted. So they want all schools, no matter what their socio-economic intake is, to look out for pupils who would benefit from being on the gifted register.

But even apart from the questions of where to draw the dividing line, and how to assess pupils, there is another even more important question: What should be done for these pupils?

It is now widely accepted that exceptionally bright pupils have "special needs" in the way that was previously only associated with pupils who found learning difficult.

Research has also shown that very bright children do not always thrive educationally. Nor is brightness any guarantee of wider success.

Studies in the USA have shown that very few of the most successful people in all spheres (business, politics, the arts) fall within the top 2% of the ability range. In fact, successful people are more likely to come from within the top 5-20% range, suggesting that other qualities, such as tenacity, stamina, interpersonal skills, are more important than raw intelligence.

The National Association for Gifted Children says exceptionally able children need to be identified so their "intellectual and personal/social development can be well managed and not stifled".

Drawing the line

However, the approach taken to gifted children will, inevitably, depend on where the dividing line is drawn. If it is the top 25%, then they could go to separate schools, as they still do in areas that still have full grammar school systems.

Yet many observers have pointed out that the top 25% is still a very broad range - too broad for specific, targeted help.

Of course, having separate schools for bright children has all sorts of other ramifications, including the effect on the other 75%. It also lacks the flexibility to cope with those pupils who move in or out of the top 25% as they grow older.

If, on the other hand, we are talking about just the top 2%, then this is a similar range to those pupils who are identified as having statements of special educational need. These comprise about 3% of all pupils.

With such a number it might be possible to have very targeted, individual, and therefore expensive, provision in the same way as is provided for pupils with severe learning disabilities.

At 5% though this would be too costly. So for children on the national register the help available is at the margins: summer schools, weekend courses or online tutorials.

'Personalised learning'

So what do parents of gifted children want? One mother told the BBC News website she was pleased her two children had been identified as gifted by their school.

But, as she put it, "they are normal children and have many other activities" so she did not want them to have extra lessons. She did, however, want them to have mainstream lessons pitched at their level.

So she wanted a return to "streaming". However, streaming, or more commonly setting, is rarely able to target as narrow a group as the top 5%.

In a typical secondary school, where budgets mean class sizes have to be around 25 pupils, a top "set" would normally comprise nearer the top 20% of the ability range.

Of course, in an ideal world, every child would be taught to its own particular ability level. Indeed, that is precisely what the government's policy of "personalised learning" is meant to achieve.

Picking out one group of pupils for special treatment in addition to this does fit a little awkwardly with belief in the effectiveness of personalised learning. If every child is to have a tailored or personalised curriculum, why select just the top 5% for extra-curricular lessons?

Or is this an acknowledgement that even "personalised learning" cannot be sufficiently tailored to meet the needs of those at the ends of the ability spectrum?

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