Bethan Marshall: Why should the gifted and talented be favoured?

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The Independent Online

One of the features that makes English such a versatile language is the number of apparent synonyms that actually mean something subtly different. The Government's "gifted and talented" policy rests on this lexical nicety. It uses the idea that these two words appear synonymous, so lending them the veneer of parity, but exploits the fact that they have a slightly different resonance. To clarify this difference, in a somewhat Orwellian fashion, Labour has given these words their own definitions. To be "gifted" is to be orientated toward the academic; "talented", on the other hand, is equated more with sporting or artistic achievement, for example.

Presumably the policymakers alighted on these words to avoid the accusation of intellectual elitism. For a party whose rhetoric assiduously avoids selection by ability, it had to be seen to be encouraging general excellence rather than academic success alone.

The difficulty is that the words themselves are not synonymous. They have a kind of pecking order. Gifted feels better than talented and the policy, which was allegedly designed to encourage a broader view of what it means to excel, has become focused on a very small elite of clever children.

What makes this all the more problematic is the narrowness of the way these children are identified. As with IQ tests, the measures are biased away from the arts. Secondary schools tend to use national curriculum tests and cognitive aptitude tests to select the small coterie of pupils picked in any given year-group. Two thirds of the national curriculum tests address maths and science; one third covers English, the only arts subject and the one that is arguably the least reliable of the tests. Certainly it attracts the most requests for remarking.

Cognitive-aptitude test scores are similarly geared towards the type of verbal reasoning that has been demonstrated to favour mathematical ability and, as with any test, only tell you how good a child was on any particular day.

Moreover, there are few mechanisms to reappraise a child's rating as gifted and talented. Once pupils are picked up as special at 11, there is little attempt later in their school career to change that description. Yet they have more money spent on them than children who are not singled out in this way. And the filtering does not end here. Five per cent of those identified as gifted and talented are registered with an academy based in Warwick. These are the five per cent to whom the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, referred in his policy announcement of a few weeks ago, in which he pledged more money to follow this very small number of pupils.

Some of the arguments against the scheme are the most obviously egalitarian. It is unclear why very able children should get special privileges, such as additional trips and workshops denied to the vast majority of pupils. But there are more subtle quarrels with it.

When it was first introduced it was seen as a sop to the middle classes to keep their offspring in the state sector. Bright middle-class pupils were seen as the likely beneficiaries of "gifted and talented" status and all its attendant perks. But now there is evidence that leading universities might start using it as a way to differentiate between candidates.

This has seen parents pay for their children to be coached and reassessed in order to gain entry.

Once again privilege is for sale. The Government has introduced a system which is likely to work to the almost exclusive advantage of a group who do not need their help and to the detriment of the people who do.

But the dangers of labelling pupils extend well beyond a threat to equality. What is so damaging about our national obsession with ability is not the idea of differential ability per se, but the implication that ability is fixed and immutable. Even the National Association of Able Children in Education, which has a much broader definition of ability, wants to sift out these pupils for special attention.

In the end, all such views are anti-educational. The purpose of school must be that learning and the acquisition of knowledge makes you smarter. But the metaphor of an intelligence quotient is it implies there are only so many "smart" cells to go around. Half a century's worth of evidence suggests this is a mistake, cognitively and socially.

The perversity of the "gifted and talented" register is it negates aspiration and builds into the structures of education lower expectations of 95 per cent of children. This must change.

The message of school should be that education matters because we can all improve; not that life is sweet if a test tells you that you are bright.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College London