The Big Question: Do bright children need to be taught separately, and is it good for them?
Why are we asking this question now?
The brightest youngsters in the country are to have their names listed in a new national register of clever pupils which was unveiled by the schools minister Lord Adonis yesterday. This week, every secondary school in England will receive a letter encouraging them to add any students they have identified as gifted and talented to the database.
Children on the register will have their progress tracked as they move through school. The database might also enable universities to identify potential applicants early, so that admissions officers from elite universities could contact bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to invite them to apply. Schools are also being encouraged to identify the top 5 per cent of 11- to 19-year-olds nationally to attend a national summer school at Warwick University.
What does the Government mean by 'gifted' and 'talented'?
Children who achieve outstanding results in their traditional school subjects will be identified as "gifted" by their teachers. Staff have also been told to look out for pupils who excel in art, music, drama, dance or sport who are labelled as "talented". Every school is expected to identify between 5 and 10 per cent of their pupils as gifted or talented. Of course, this means that a wide variety of abilities will be represented on the register - the top 10 per cent from a grammar school will be very different from the top 10 per cent at England's worst performing comprehensive.
Would a register of clever children do any good?
The Government believes that many bright children, particularly those from poor homes, are not being stretched by their schools, which often fail to recognise that they have special talents. There have been fears that the gifted and talented programme has been excessively dominated by middle-class children. It is middle-class parents who are most likely to brow beat teachers into putting their offspring on the programme. The letter that will be sent to all secondary schools next week will urge them to ensure that the social mix of the children put on the register is representative of the overall social mix of the school.
A new report from the National Association for Gifted Children, to be published later this month, will reveal that the Government's current programme for gifted and talented children is extremely patchy in many schools. So, ministers hope that the register will encourage schools to take the issue seriously and ensure fairer access to the scheme.
What special treatment will bright students get?
All schools in disadvantaged areas receive extra funding for them to provide special classes for their brightest 10 per cent of students. This could mean attending seminars at the local university or having extra classes in traditional school subjects.
The top 5 per cent nationally are also made members of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented. This academy was set up by the Government, at the University of Warwick, to improve provision for gifted and talented young people up to the age of 19 years, and to provide, advice and training for teachers.
It enables students to attend short courses delivered by experts at locations across the country and to receive online tuition guided by university academics. Students can also attend summer schools which provide longer, more in-depth focus on one subject in a university environment.
Is it unfair for pupils to be treated differently from their classmates?
This has been an extremely contentious issue. When the programme was first announced by ministers it provoked a storm of protest from teaching unions and educationalists who feared that it would be unfair and that places on the scheme would be hogged by pushy middle class parents. Since then schools have been grateful to receive the extra funding and have argued that the scheme is not divisive in practice as they can use the experience of the gifted few to benefit the rest of the students. Headteachers yesterday warned that the new register will make the situation more unfair by encouraging middle-class parents to get their children on the list to ensure special treatment.
Won't it lead to more pressure on young people?
This is headteachers' biggest fear about the new register. They are concerned that schools will be forced to rely on the national tests taken by primary school pupils to identify the brightest 11-year-olds when they start secondary school. This will make the tests extremely high stakes, with many parents putting even more pressure on their children to succeed. John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, argued: "Children are under quite enough pressure taking these tests without also wondering whether they will be put on a list of top performers."
What alternative programmes are available?
The Government has been encouraging schools to set their students by ability. Most schools now set by ability for at least one subject. This has been a significant change from the traditional model of comprehensive education which was based on mixed-ability classes.
Many schools have run their own programmes for bright students for years. Increasing numbers of students sit their GCSE and A-level exams early after being accelerating through their courses by their schools. Some schools allow their brightest sixthformers to attend lecturers at local universities or student for open university courses.
Some traditionalists argue that the best way of helping poor bright students was the grammar school system. The former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, says: "If secondary schools are not doing enough for the brightest children now why are they going to do anything for them if they are on a register?" He argues for a return to grammar schools, insisting that gifted children would prosper because "there, bright children are educated in schools for bright children".
Should clever children be favoured over their classmates?
* Every child has a right to achieve their full potential and should not be held back by the rest of the class.
* Bright pupils from poor backgrounds lack the confidence to make the most of their talents, so they need special treatment.
* Teachers can cover more ground, more quickly when they only have bright pupils in their lessons.
* Money currently spent on the top 10 per cent would be better invested if it were shared between all pupils.
* Middle-class parents will pressure teachers to favour their offspring's 'special talents'.
* Pupils of all abilities can benefit socially and academically from being educated together in mixed-ability classes and schools.
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