We tend to slap down anyone gifted

They're called by different names, some more acceptable than others. Child prodigies, gifted kids - in the USA they are simply nerds or geeks, and summer camps laid on for them are unashamedly known as "nerd camps".

Whether you choose any of these terms or the more politically correct title of "able pupils", things may be about to get better for children who have abilities beyond the normal range.

That’s because for the first time, in a little-noticed change, schools in Scotland are being required to meet their needs.

The Additional Support for Learning Act will create a national framework for working with children beyond the usual spectrum. It applies to those who need more help because they are falling behind or have special needs, but will also require better support for the exceptionally able.

While the legislation, which is scheduled to come into force this autumn after consultation, does not specifically mention able pupils, they are explicitly identified in the code of practice.

However, the Scottish Executive says it will not be making any extra resources available to meet schools’ needs.

Parents and campaigners fear that without extra resources and training being targeted at this sector, the service for Scottish children will be patchy at best.

They claim schools are struggling to caterfor the most talented pupils in the classroom. And it may come down to a Scottish attitude which seems incapable of celebrating and nurturing success.

Chris Smith of the Scottish Network of Able Pupils (SNAP) says: “There is a long history in Scotland of being very uncomfortable with identifying children of high ability. It goes right back to the grammar school issue. At the moment the service is patchy. There are some schools that are thinking about it and there are some local education authorities which are
aware and doing things about it but there are some places where it is just not happening.”

Children operating outside the expected limits for those of their age can have unexpected problems, Smith says.

“They are not always the high achievers.

They may not be engaged by what is happening in the school. Some sit and bide their time until they get to university but other children can turn off and dumb down and some can develop very challenging behaviour.”

She pointed out that in many other countries, there is a national programme for identifying exceptional children. In England, schools are obliged to identify their ablest children and bring them into a national programme that includes summer camps.

In the US too, children with unusual abilities in verbal or spatial thinking attend camps where they can be taught together and for some, enjoy an important opportunity to become part of a “cluster” of like-minded individuals which they may find difficult at their local school, where they may stand out and feel isolated.

Extra classes in maths, science, logic, language and philosophy move at breakneck speed, tailored to the needs of the students to take new ideas on board quickly without too much repetition which simply bores them.

Psychologist Robert Plomin of King’s College London says that these students tend to be characterised not so much by IQ but by a “rage for learning” which means that given the opportunity they will choose to acquire knowledge on subjects that interest them at a faster rate than other children. “It’s more of an appetite than an aptitude, ” he says.

Scotland should invest more in such children, Smith says. “It is almost as if we are saying that these people don’t exist in Scotland but in actual fact, we have just as many. It is just that we don’t like talking about them.

“We are quite happy to identify children who are particularly talented when it comes to music or dancing and send them to special units, but not when it comes to maths or languages. There is a tendency to want to slap people back down and say ‘don’t get too big for your boots’. People also worry that these children will turn into prodigies.”

One mother of a “gifted” child is Jane, who has three sons, the eldest of whom, Carl, is exceptionally able. She says: “It’s not something that I really like to talk about. People think you are boasting but actually sometimes I just wish he could be normal.”

Jane did not want to be identified, given her criticisms of the school her son is still at. Her local primary’s ability to meet Carl’s needs depended too much on individual goodwill, she believes. Initially identified has having a need for extra stimulation, Carl was doing science work at the local secondary school in the early years of primary school. But in another year that was stopped. “He had a teacher who just thought it was ridiculous, ” Jane explains.

While she had no desire to see Carl turn into a prodigy or go to university early, she says simply: “I am aware through being his mother for all these years that he needs extra.”

Constant high-octane learning opportunities appear to be vital to his well-being and when they have not been available he has become difficult and demanding.

When Carl’s needs for intellectual stimulation were not being met, Jane said he started to exhibit very challenging behaviour. “I went to the school and started to put pressure on, ” she says. Carl also sat an entrance exam for an exclusive private prep school and gained a scholarship but Jane turned it down because things improved at his local primary. “I really just wanted him to go to the local school.”

Carl moved classes and a new deputy head arrived who took responsibility for arranging a special programme for him.

Currently Jane is happy with the way things are going but would prefer the security of a national framework, rather than feeling that what is available from year to year may change.

Current thinking on very able children is not necessarily to accelerate them into older age groups but to provide openended teaching which would allow different children to achieve at different levels at their own pace.

Smith argues that open-ended teaching would enable children to demonstrate their extra abilities, then extra support or “enrichment” could be provided within the class. If more was needed, cluster groups could be formed within the school community or through the use of IT within the local education authority. Thinking about the needs of potential high-ability students would improve the educational opportunities for all pupils, she says.

Smith also wants to see more publicity alerting schools and teachers to their new responsibilities for able pupils. SNAP offers training opportunities including a post-graduate certificate in working with able children which could help education authorities to prepare for the new framework.

Many teachers will need additional training to provide this kind of opportunity, Smith says. “We have been working on providing for special needs children for 30 years so the basic framework is already in place. That is not the case with able children.”

Calming a rage for learning

Author and educationalist Belle Wallace recently advised Scottish teachers on a method called TASC (thinking actively in a social context) now used in English schools.

Wallace opposes labelling children as gifted or able, but believes in identifying and meeting their learning needs.

She says lessons should be geared to the needs of a range of pupils, with teachers working on different levels.

“In one primary school we had a project on Vikings with p5. While many of the children made quite simple Viking artefacts, a group of boys researched the exact dimensions and structures of a Viking long boat. They scaled it down, then tested materials for flexibility and constructed an exact scale model. It is now in a local museum. They were doing it at
break times and after school and on Saturday mornings because they were loving it.”

Another project on the aftermath of the Second World War inspired a group of primary five girls with exceptional language skills.

“They brought in senior citizens to the school, constructed a questionnaire and interviewed them, then used it to write a drama which they performed. It was a really authentic piece of work.”

The teachers manipulated groups so that children with similar skills were working together.

Wallace said these children were often neglected. “I have spent my life battling against underachievement and I encourage teachers to throw out challenges. I say ‘don’t just challenge the one or two at the top, offer it to the next group too so they can show what they can do’.”

The Scottish Herald
6th April 2005