Why don't we want our children to be gifted and talented? In other countries parents trample over each other to get their children on to fast-track educational programmes. Here we seem more interested in keeping bright children from getting too big for their boots. This week the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth opened its doors for the second time. Last year 100 children attended a pilot scheme at Warwick University. This year 900 places were offered for three-week residential courses at the universities of Warwick, Durham, York, Exeter and at Canterbury Christ Church University College. But interest was low. Fewer than a third of places had been taken by the May deadline, and although numbers have since doubled, this has only been achieved by extending the deadline, upping subsidies and circulating private schools, much to the annoyance of critics such as the National Union of Teachers, who thought this would make the project elitist.
The problems are merely practical, says the Academy, and will be ironed out with experience. The three-week model came from the States, where summers are long, and summer camps routine. Here, summers are shorter and eaten into by family holidays. Money has also been an issue. Initial recruitment was handicapped by drawn-out negotiations over levels of government subsidy. Places were eventually offered to parents at £600, with their children's schools expected to contribute £270 of this, and additional subsidies were added later, to bring the cost to parents down to anything from £330 to nothing, depending on income.
But is there something more insidious at work here as well? Yes, says Terry Creisson, the head of Colne Community School, Colchester. "What we've got in this country is an anti-boffin culture. If children are highlighted at that level for their IQ, they're called boffs, and if parents support them, they're called pushy parents." And the National Academy has done nothing to break down such perceptions, he says. "We've had a gifted and talented programme in our school for years, and it works very well, but it would still be a huge step for any of our kids to put themselves forward for something like this. The Academy needs to help people make smaller steps. It needs to get out into schools and work with kids and encourage them and show them what it's all about. It needs to get students and teachers to see it differently. Instead of just saying, 'We're the National Academy and of course you should want to come to us'."
"There is an antipathy in the UK to being labelled as gifted and talented academically," agrees Sir Peter Lampl, the chairman of the Sutton Trust, which runs free university taster summer schools for sixth formers who might not otherwise think of higher education. "But the same stigma doesn't seem to apply to children who are gifted at sports and music. The talent, potential and drive is out there, but we clearly need to be sensitive in the way we appeal to our bright youngsters."
Clare Lorenz, the chairman of the charity Children of High Intelligence (CHI), says problems are endemic in the school system. "It's a mental hang-up. If you're hearing-impaired, everyone will juggle balls like mad. But there's residual resentment of these children. They're thought of as swots and clever clogs, too clever by half."
And the result, she says, can be boredom, bullying and bad behaviour. Parents come to CHI, she says, not to push their children academically, but because they see how unhappy they are in school. Saturday classes run by CHI allow pupils to get their teeth into open-ended problems such as "Define the smell of wet lettuce" or "What is the internal heat of Saturn?", and visiting teachers are often amazed at the engagement of children they only know as oddballs, or disruptive, in their own classrooms.
The National Association for Gifted Children gets 3,000 calls a year on its helpline, "which gives an indication of the magnitude of the problems," says the director Stephen Tommis. "Provision for the gifted and talented is nowhere near nationwide yet. There is still a long way to go."
A lot has been started up in the past few years. There are more gifted and talented co-ordinators in local education authorities, more opportunities for children to take world-class tests, more enrichment programmes in schools, and more regional initiatives such as the London Challenge, for children in the capital. The multimillion-pound Excellence in Cities programme, which works to raise achievement in deprived areas, has been in the forefront of getting schools to identify top pupils, and in shaping provision for them.
Yet all these things can look better on paper than in real life. One mother sent her son to a north London comprehensive which claimed to have a programme for able students, but was slowly disillusioned. "There was no setting at all until Year 10. Then he was put on the gifted and talented register in four subjects, but it didn't mean anything. He hasn't had a single piece of extra or different work in any of them. He was invited to go on one summer school, but with only 10 days' notice. They take the money, but they don't do a thing with it. Now he says what he's mainly learnt is: you can't be too clever in school."
Yet the worst thing for a bright child is to be bored, says Val Duffy-Cross, head of Langley School, Solihull, which works with its top few percentage of pupils by giving them different work, liaising with colleges and training staff in gifted and talented needs. "We also arrange for groups to come together because it can be so lonely for them to be stuck on their own. They start to feel there's something wrong with them."
And the demand is definitely there, if fostered in the right way. The Sutton Trust this year had a record 2,000 sixth formers applying for its 700 summer-school places, while schools that have taken the time to develop strong gifted and talented programmes find youngsters are eager to be on them. "They are really, really up for it," says Sally Marsh, one of the gifted and talented co-ordinators at George Abbot School, Guildford, which challenges its bright youngsters with a programme that takes place both in and out of the classroom. "I've never asked anyone to come along to something and had them say no."
Yet Marsh, a recently-qualified teacher, had no training in how to deal with able children. "It's meant to be one of the standards on the initial teacher training course but we never got any time on it at all. I've just been thrown in at the deep end."
Barry Teare, a specialist education consultant in this field, says this is common. "I've asked 100 new teachers which of them had it covered in their training and seen maybe three hands go up. The Government has done a brilliant job of putting it at the top of the educational agenda, but the strategy of how you do it is very new."
Schools often have little money for provision, he points out, out-of-school activities are never enough by themselves, and there can be problems in getting teachers on board. "It's all a question of how you define it. If you put intellectual success alongside other routes to success such as the performing arts, or leadership skills, that is acceptable. Teachers often come on courses with reservations, but go away enthused."
The one thing there is no shortage of is ideas about how better to cater for gifted children. CHI says more pupils should be allowed to take exams early. "We've got to get schools to drop the view that there must always be an age lock," says Clare Lorenz. And many say the National Academy must develop shorter courses and extend its outreach work if it is to develop as an effective national flagship. But all agree that the fundamental problem is one of attitude.
"Five or six years ago many people thought, 'Why should we support gifted and talented children? They are more than able to cope with anything life throws at them'," says Stephen Tommis. "That is beginning to go now. But we still have to raise expectations and make it cool to be clever."
'IT'S GOOD TO BE WITH THE SAME SORT OF PEOPLE'
The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth offers high-flying secondary-school-age children the chance to stretch their skills, take new courses (anything from "health and disease", to "sport in society"), and socialise with like-minded students. Although it has had to struggle to fill its places this year, youngsters who have tried it are keen to return.
David Parkes, 14 (right), of Langley School, Solihull, went on the pilot scheme at Warwick University last year. "My dad saw it on the internet and we applied for a place and got it. I wasn't bothered about staying away from home, I just thought it would be nice to get away, and it didn't get in the way of any family plans because we weren't really doing anything anyway.
"You pick your courses on application. I did maths and creative writing. It's hard work, and challenging, but it's nice to make progress at your own rate, and it's good to be with the same sort of people. I've kept in touch with some of them, and I know one other person who's going this year They are the sort of people who have the same sense of humour as you. At school people aren't too bad, but out of lessons I'm not at all intellectual. I'm just normal."
He also enjoyed the social activities of the Academy. "There are things going on all the time. I did trampolining and other sports, and we went on visits, and made little robots out of plastic." And he changed his ideas about his future. "The maths was actually pretty gruelling, to be honest. It quite turned me off it. Now I'm thinking I'd like to do something creative, with music, or writing."
But all that was for free, and this year he is acutely aware that it's not. "They say each place costs £1,700 if you pay the full cost, and this year mine's costing about £500 or something, so I'm a bit nervous because it is such a large amount of money." And he fears it could be even more by the time his 11-year-old brother, Matthew, hits the right age. "So I'm not at all sure he'll be able to go. Which would be a pity. It's bound to become more elitist, if you start having to pay a lot of money."