Who are the gifted and talented children in our schools and are their needs being properly met? Former head, Roger Smith, suggests that broader definitions and greater efforts need to be made to identify and support the special needs of this group

There have always been children with an insatiable demand for knowledge, who always work far harder and for far longer than anyone else and who seem to know a great deal more than most about all kinds of subjects. It has never been easy to provide these gifted and talented children with fully differentiated tasks that recognise their abilities, but there has been a growing awareness in more recent times that their needs are not being met sufficiently in many mainstream schools.

Large classes, insufficient support and even less funding are part of the problem. Focusing on the key issues of raising standards of achievement, establishing high expectations and promoting effective teaching and learning has to be the way forward if the needs of all children are to be catered for successfully.

The whole-school context

Back in 1995, the DfEE in Governors and More Able Children was suggesting that ‘school governors… should ensure that the school has considered the needs of its able children’. The Ofsted Handbook for Inspecting Schools in 2000 made it clear that the education of able, gifted and talented children needed to be addressed so that each school could play its part in the continuous process of school improvement.

Schools are now expected to have a specific policy for gifted and talented children. This is based on the belief that creating a concrete policy focuses the mind and can be a useful reference point. There is also an expectation that each school will have a named teacher at a senior level who will have responsibility for gifted and talented children.

Ofsted further sees the governors as having a clear role in asking questions about how a school provides for its gifted and talented children. This, it suggests, will mean that the issue is always on the agenda and gives status and commitment to the school’s support for able children by:

  • supporting the implementation of a school policy
  • supporting the teacher who is responsible for gifted and talented children
  • ensuring gifted and talented children are in the school improvement plan
  • identifying budgetary provision for resources
  • championing the cause of gifted and talented children.

Who are the gifted and talented?

Ofsted considers that the identification of gifted and talented children is presenting difficulties for school and that the methods of identification have generally been rudimentary. Using test scores is viewed as useful – but only in a limited way. According to Ofsted, ‘gifted’ refers to the top 5% of the school population in academic subjects and ‘talented’ to the top 5% in other subjects. Is this helpful as a definition? I don’t think so.

The DfES says that gifted pupils are those who have abilities in one or more subjects in the statutory school curriculum other than art and design, music and PE. Talented pupils are those who have abilities in art and design, music, PE or in sports or performing arts. So, if this is the case, then the pupil who is an all rounder will be regarded as gifted as well as talented.

Both these definitions seem woolly but somewhere, someone is apparently able to identify these children relatively easily – and hopefully accurately – because the National Register of Gifted and Talented Children has been launched and there is already a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth.

A wider definition

Most schools are good at identifying children with SEN and, by using the school’s SEN register, the expertise of a SENCO and the funding that is available are able to manage most of the challenges that such children present.

To be as successful with gifted and talented children, we need to have a much wider idea of who they might be. So let’s try to do this more effectively by suggesting that, in general, such children:

  • have a wide vocabulary – having often talked early
  • ask lots of questions and learn much more quickly than others
  • have a very retentive memory
  • are extremely curious and able to concentrate for long periods on subjects that they are interested in
  • have a wide general knowledge and an interest in the world
  • enjoy problem solving
  • have an unusual and vivid imagination
  • show strong feelings and opinions
  • have an odd sense of humour
  • set high standards for themselves and are perfectionists
  • lose interest when asked to do more of the same.

No child will show all these sorts of behaviour but most gifted and talented children will show a significant number of them. They may also ruin our reliance on equating high test scores with high intelligence by scoring poorly on tests because their relevance and their importance is lost on them.

What can we do to support them?

Gifted and talented children usually have a great thirst for knowledge and, like all children; it is very easy to destroy their self-confidence. Their experiences with their teachers and their peers in the classroom are critical. I am taking it for granted that each teacher in your school can plan effectively and is able to differentiate so that any children who are gifted and talented are able to learn and develop their skills. I suppose I am also assuming that you have a policy, a coordinator and a named governor – haven’t we all? Or at least we will be introducing all these important factors as soon as possible.

If you are still concerned perhaps asking yourself these four questions might help:

1. How effectively does my school’s ethos help teachers to meet the needs of gifted and talented children in the context of achievement for all?

2. What are our key strengths that are already in both the policy and practice for gifted and talented children?

3. Do we have enough data and enough information on gifted and talented children?

4. How do we know that we are meeting their needs?

Dare I suggest that gifted and talented children should receive the same levels of support as pupils with other special educational needs? Will your budget run to specialist teaching assistants, for example? Perhaps not, but there are other ways to both boost the confidence of gifted and talented children as well as maintaining their interest and their ability to learn. Often their willingness to continue to learn is based on some simple teaching issues such as:

  • lessons that are fun
  • teaching that is varied and involves participation
  • their involvement in group work and other collaborative approaches
  • lessons that are seen as useful and are connected to the ‘real’ world.

However, we also need to widen the learning environment of all children and especially those who have extra gifts and talents by providing them with a wealth of extra-curricular activities. The Excellence in Cities programme which began providing support for pupils in inner cities in 1999 provides funds for extra lessons or clubs at lunchtime or after hours. The Children’s University encourages schools to develop out-of-hours clubs and courses and then gives out certificates and other quite prestigious awards.

The NAGTY based at Warwick University filled its 2006 summer schools. Its initial registration target of 7,000 pupils in 2004 has now reached more than 37,000. This has to mean better identification of gifted and talented children, the recognition that extending their learning activities is important and that if such courses and experiences are offered they will be easily filled.

Having high expectations

Gifted and talented children who are starting in primary school Reception classes need to be identified quickly and easily so that their teaching and learning can be effectively monitored and their needs met from as early an age as possible. Skilful teaching will help them to learn and it will also minimise their frustrations and maintain their confidence and self-esteem. For example, some children might need to be taught with older children or perhaps remain with their peers but follow a very different and advanced curriculum.

There also needs be close links and effective liaison between what happens in the classroom and what happens at clubs and other gifted and talented activities and programmes. All the human differences we see in our schools and classrooms are normal and the rich contribution that diversity makes to how our schools and classrooms work needs to be welcomed.

If we are to have inclusive schools we need to develop an approach to teaching and learning that will support children who are gifted and talented so that we are able to say that we are truly achieving excellence for all learners.

Use of audit

The QCA suggests that schools might use an audit of existing provision as a means to ensure that all groups of pupils enjoy access to gifted and talented programmes. It says that by auditing existing provision, schools can check that pupils identified as gifted and talented are broadly representative of the school population.

According to the authority, an audit should also assess whether current practice identifies able pupils from groups that may be underachieving but who have unfulfilled potential. It will also include assessing whether some able newly arrived pupils underachieve because of a lack of challenge in curriculum provision.

Useful websites

The government, Ofsted and other organisations are developing many ideas about what is and is not good practice for gifted and talented children. Some of the most useful websites include: