Brightest pupils are `betrayed' by society betrays its young `swots and boffins' face

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GIFTED CHILDREN are falling victim to an anti-intellectual culture, MPs say today.

People must stop labelling bright children swots and boffins, and teachers must banish their belief that such pupils do not need extra help, according to a report from the Commons Education and Employment committee.

One group giving evidence told the MPs: "Academic excellence is not always seen in a positive light by either school pupils or British culture generally. In many schools it is not seen as cool to be bright. More able pupils are called swots and clever-clogs." Highly able children interviewed by the committee agreed.

There is debate about the number of gifted pupils. According to teachers, about 5 per cent of children are very able and only 1 or 2 per cent exceptionally able but the figure could rise to 30 per cent or more if children who are outstanding in one subject are included.

The report concludes that the biggest obstacle to meeting their needs is the attitude of teachers and society. More than a third of state primary and nearly the same proportion of secondary schools are not teaching gifted children properly. Independent schools are little better. In some schools, the report notes, "the needs of children of high ability are not seen as a priority by teachers and schools", and "schools do not set high enough level of expectation of their pupils".

Malcolm Wicks, the committee's chairman, said: "As a nation, over the last 20 years we have focused on overall standards of performance and quite properly have been concerned about children who are doing less well. That means there is a danger that Britain's brightest children sometimes get a raw deal... The worry is that many are neglected and become frustrated or disruptive."

Ministers have backed the idea of "accelerating" or fast- tracking bright pupils as part of their plans to modernise comprehensive schools.

But the MPs are cautious about pupils starting university early or being fast-tracked through school. Last year one student under 16, and 418 students aged 16, began degree courses. The report cites the case of a student who suffered a nervous breakdown partly because he went to university too soon. MPs said yesterday that one bright student had put off his entry to university because he did not wish to be excluded from the bar.

An alternative might be for pupils to do mini-dissertations supervised by an academic from a local university or through the Internet. Mr Wicks said: "We could team up some of our brightest youngsters with Nobel prize winners through the Internet. It would be ridiculous if an undiscovered Mozart or Einstein had to plod through an A-level syllabus."

The report calls for a coherent national strategy for gifted children, funding for schools to help them, better teacher training and named teachers to cater for the gifted in schools. Equally, highly able children "must be allowed to enjoy their childhood". Mr Wicks said: "A highly able child is a child ... They are not simply brains on legs."