OPINION : Too bright for their own good

Pupils with learning difficulties receive help. Why not high achievers?
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One of the many vexed questions affecting the education system is the appropriate system of support for children of high intelligence or giftedness. The system provides for the "average" pupil to receive the National Curriculum at differing attainment levels and for those with "learning difficulties" to receive specialist or remedial input.

High achievers, who many might argue are the best hope for the future, receive no such support. A large number of educationists and education authorities claim that most teachers can support the wide scope of pupils in an ordinary classroom without the need for acceleration or other assistance or stimulation.

Others suggest that gifted pupils need considerable support if their potential is to be realised. The absence of such support will lead to the pupils switching off, becoming frustrated and no longer fulfilling their promise.

This may be especially the case where the bright child also has some level of dysfunction, for example short-term memory loss or a lesser ability in numeracy skills. Despite this the child may be able to compensate to a considerable degree and therefore continue to operate at a level not necessary commensurate with their abilities but at a performance age greater than their chronological peer group.

The provisions of the Education Act 1981 (now Part III of the Education Act 1993) provide for pupils with special educational needs. Such needs are defined by reference to "learning difficulties", which means that a pupil has either a "significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his age" or "a disability which either prevents or hinders him from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for children of his age".

There has been considerable debate as to whether the standard for determining whether a child of high intelligence has special educational needs is set on the assumption as to the level of functioning of the particular pupil against the average of the chronological peer group. Many education authorities have tried to introduce a policy to the effect that unless the child is within the bottom 2 per cent (as suggested in the Warnock report, which preceded the Education Act 1981) then no support may be necessary.

In a recent High Court case a judge decided that "the fact that the pupil is able to compensate, as a result of her exceptionally high intelligence, to a level above that achieved by the majority of children of her chronological age does not mean that she does not have special educational needs within the [statutory] definition".

This decision should mean that the gifted child will have to be better supported, as in the absence of such support many will start to under- function in relation to their actual ability levels and then potentially require much more expensive support through the special needs and statementing system. This decision should require many authorities to revisit their policies and approaches for those with the highest potential in the education system so as to allow them to achieve as their abilities would indicate.

The author is a solicitor specialising in the law relating to special educational needs and is chair of the Education Law Association.