Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Above and Beyond

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Above and Beyond

Article excerpt

Gifted students have the potential to be the leaders and innovators of tomorrow, but only if they receive the right support. Irena Barker asks whether the education system is set up to let them down - and what we can do differently

A t the age of 3, Jake* had already taught himself about multiplication, square roots and prime numbers. His mother, Louise Collins*, was proud of Jake's talents and gently encouraged his burgeoning interest in maths.

But when the time came for Jake to enter Reception at the age of 4, everything changed. A sensitive child, he struggled in the busy environment of school and was so overwhelmed that he misbehaved.

"It was horrific. He spent the whole time on the naughty seat," Collins says. "He had to shut down, he couldn't listen to instructions, he refused to sit on the carpet for two years.

"For him the environment wasn't really tolerable. It was very difficult."

Staff were initially resistant to the idea that Jake might be gifted, but Collins convinced the school that if her son could simply focus on maths, everything else would fall into place. The strategy worked: he settled down.

By the end of Reception, Jake had finished the primary maths curriculum. When he was in Year 2, the school brought in a specialist tutor so that he could work at his own pace. Now 11, Jake sat GCSE maths this summer and, despite his mother's concerns over selective education, will attend one of the UK's 164 grammar schools in September.

"I'm pro comprehensive education," Collins says. "But when we went to the comprehensive, they just said, 'We haven't taught A-level for 10 years.' They were a bit rabbit in the headlights with it. Some of the provision for gifted and talented children seemed to be, 'Oh, once a year you can go to a museum.'

"That's kind of OK, but it doesn't seem to me to be what is required. What is needed, every day, is someone in the classroom saying, 'What does this child need?' "

A precious resource

Jake is a particularly compelling example of the millions of children around the world who display off-the-scale levels of talent or are extremely able in one or more subjects or disciplines. Despite their impressive skills, all too often they are viewed as a problem by schools.

In England and the US in particular, government policies have meant that many schools have been forced to prioritise getting the bulk of their student body to a basic standard, such as GCSE grade C. Indeed, to some schools, from some angles, an exceptionally able child might look more like a disruptive burden than a blessing.

Experts the world over insist that we neglect encouraging and developing our most talented children at our peril. According to David Lubinski, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, "gifted children are a precious human-capital resource".

Lubinski's research compares the SAT college entrance test scores of highly gifted US students with achievement later in life. "This population represents future creators of modern culture and leaders in business, health care, law, the professoriate and Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths]," he says.

But Lubinski stresses that these children's success is not guaranteed. They need access to academic work suited to their faster pace of learning to ensure they remain motivated and reach their full potential.

Martin Stephen - former high master of St Paul's School, an unashamedly elite independent school in London - is soon to publish research into gifted and talented provision across the world, and describes high-performing children as "one of our last remaining natural resources".

But again he emphasises that their success is not certain. In the wrong environment, their talents might not be recognised or they might not want to develop them. …

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