The scandalous neglect of 'Gifted and Talented' Pupils
17 Mar 2010 The Guardian
'Inconsistent and incoherent": that was how the government's programme for gifted and talented children in England was described in recent evidence to the Commons schools committee.
In private some use much stronger language, describing the government's policy as: "money wasted" and "a disaster" caused by "shameful meddling and weasel words".
In 1997, the Labour government believed there should be no cap on aspirations for able children, whatever their background. The drive to ensure they fulfilled their potential came under the Excellence in Cities programme. However, there remained concern that many schools still failed to see able children as a priority.
So, in 2002, the government commissioned the University of Warwick to create a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth. For five years this made good progress. But suddenly the government changed direction. In 2007, the contract to run the gifted and talented programme went to CfBT Education Trust.
Three years on, CfBT has in turn had its contract ended. Next month, the baton passes to Capita, as part of the National Strategies. But this will last for only a year as the programme is wound down. From 2011, provision for gifted and talented pupils will, once again, be delegated to schools.
The contracts with Warwick and CfBT have cost an estimated £67m. Yet there has been little continuity. The expertise that was built up at CfBT has not been transferred to Capita. The policy is back to where it started: relying on schools.
It is a mess. An estimated 800,000 able pupils have been let down. After almost a decade, there will no longer be a central website where they and their teachers can access activities or learn about further opportunities.
It is a sad reality that some schools still do not regard identifying gifted and talented pupils as a priority. Of course, they could argue they are acting rationally, since the serious penalties for missing targets relate mostly to failure to raise the performance of lower-achieving pupils.
Failing to raise a very bright pupil from achieving a string of B grades to A grades, or failing to encourage them towards the best universities, barely shows up in school accountability measures. Yet there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that a focus on providing for the most able students has a positive impact on the whole school's ethos and attainment.
All children deserve the same chance to reach their potential, whatever their level. It would be a sorry position if, as one expert puts it, the best policy for a gifted child was to "get a scholarship to a good private school".
From 2011, the government will rely on schools to identify and meet the needs of the brightest 5-10% of the cohort. This will be monitored by Ofsted and backed by so-called parent and pupil "guarantees".
There will be scholarships worth £250 a year for able pupils from deprived homes. But that will not buy much and no one will audit how it is spent. One insider describes it as "pathetic" and even Professor John Stannard, the national champion for gifted and talented learners, admits it is "a very small amount".
It is terribly sad to see the dispersal of the expertise that had been built up. Fortunately, one centre of excellence remains in the charitable sector. The Villiers Park Educational Trust recently launched its Scholars Programme to focus on gifted pupils in deprived areas of the country, offering concerted, longitudinal help in association with local schools and universities.
Villiers Park does fantastic work (I must declare an interest as a trustee). Yet its long-term funding is in question. It is the sort of centre of expertise that should be supported by a national programme, and which will be needed when the onus falls on schools, but there is no guarantee it will still be there when needed.
Some believe the government's grip on gifted and talented policy loosened when Lord Adonis left the education department. The fear now is that instead of pushing for change in schools, the government will merely look to universities to rectify the position through affirmative admissions policies.
But the government, and whoever takes power after the election, should note that if the much-used slogan Every Child Matters means anything, it should apply to clever children, too. Gifted and talented policy should be an election issue.