Memorandum from Ruth Coppard, Educational
Psychologist, Rotherham MBC
My background: I was a Gifted Child who was
treated as an individual by a school in W Yorks and then as a
bit of a nuisance by my primary school in Birmingham where at
11, I was repeating maths I had done in Halifax at seven. In both
areas, people were sent out to assess me as my IQ was so high.
Subsequently I taught in Glasgow, Renfrew and Sheffield and have
worked as an Educational Psychologist in two LEAs. In this capacity,
I havealmost as an indulgencebeen allowed to work
with exceptionally able children and ran a monthly club for teacher-referred
pupils for 14 years. Parents came, some educationalists were enormously
supportive. I have two able-enough children.
1(a) I am unclear whether you are focusing
on the top 2 per cent, the top 20 per cent or the one-in-a-thousand.
To define a cohort of gifted and talented individuals is virtually
impossible since they are almost by definition one-offs. It may
be worth listing a number of the G and T and then selecting by
random namee.g., every fourth in any one age groupfor
indepth interview. If each Authority is asked to list the G and
T in their area, that in itself would be a useful exercise in
alerting the LEAs to exceptional children locally; it would also
ensure that the responses had not been massaged by quick actions
when people knew something significant was about to happen.
2(a) Many schools find it hard to identify
any able child who is not an early reader. The three year old
super-brain is easy to spot but many schools are misled by diligent
young learners from very supportive backgrounds.
(b) There is no statutory requirement to
meet the needs of the most able and financial restraints mean
that money has been focused on those who can go to law. G and
T children with consequent or concomittent behavioural problems
do get help. In my experience the schools' response to exceptional
children is patchy and virtually random. It seems to depend largely
on an enthusiast somewhere in the system; parents have little
power and are generally regarded as a nuisance. As there are no
significant rewards for dealing well with these children, it is
rare for any central body to know what is going on and therefore
to encourage any particular response. Even within one secondary
school, there can be a lack of awareness from one department to
another, one department may accelerate while the next feels it's
unethical. At primary school, it seems to be very much down to
individual teachers, with one who is sympathetic to their needs
dreading the effect the next might have on the child.
(c) It is easier for schools to identify,
say, a talented musician or sportsman but even then it may be
hard to provide the necessary resources.
(d) Exceptional children do not necessarily
group themselves tidily together in schools and most seem to suffer
from a measure of social isolation even when schools try to compensate
for this. All children need the competition peers can providethey
need the opportunity to vie with others of similar ability, to
test themselves against serious competition. They need the chance,
too, to befriend people with whom they feel they have something
in common. It is stressful to live constantly with the need to
disguise interests or abilities in order to belong.
3(a) Highly able children require good, enthusiastic
teaching and competent differentiation. They need to be identified
and there needs to be a flexibility of approach which allows a
child to learn at a rate which encourages and sustains motivation.
This may require allowing the child to work with a different age-group
when appropriate. I believed that Comprehensive schools were conceived
to allow students to work with the group that most suited in each
subject; rather than streaming for, say, English and then keeping
them together for everything else.
(b) There must be time available to assess
need and then to go some way to meeting it. These children require
a range of resourcespeople, books, equipmentthat
may possibly be located in a different educational sector and
although Comps and Colleges are usually (but not universally)
supportive, there are time and financial implications in using
resources not based in school.
(c) In my experience, whether attention and
resources are available is also down to individual enthusiasms.
One H/T contacted the author of the primary maths text and arranged
for him to visit and advise the school. Another teacher told the
parents of a Y7 boy whom he had tested with a GCSE paper on which
he had achieved a B, that the boy would have to learn to concentrate
in the Y7 class before he would consider doing anything differently.
(d) Each child is entitled to his/her share
of the financial pot and it is presently unevenly distributed.
4(a) If education does not meet the needs
of the highly able, we may lose them. A child who is ignored,
effectively, and who marks time for much of his school career
tends to become increasingly unhappy. He is already isolated socially
by being unlike most of his peers and may define himself within
a classroom as a nuisance, disruptive and worse. If he is bored,
he must find something to do, and it is more likely to be overtly
accessible and exciting [i.e., drugs, shoplifting, bullying] than
discovering archaeology. Students who can complete assignments
on time without effort, have a lot of energy left.
(b) Children have very strong, almost overpowering,
affiliation needs. If their needs are not met in a positive, accepting
and encouraging way, they are likely to choose alternative ways
of identifying themselves within a peer group. I am working with
a very bright three year old. Already he does not want to show
his peers that he reads fluently and that he is different. He
is, of course, already apart and needs special help to enable
him to be proud of his achievements and to develop his self-esteem.
(c) Very able children are sensitive perfectionists.
They tend to be logical but to have some very odd ideas; they
may have grass-hopper minds. It's easy for a child like this to
feel apart. These children understand the first timeif
you think how tedious it is to listen to someone you love tell
a story you have heard before and then explain it further, you
have some idea how hard it must be for those students whose needs
are not met, who are taught at the same pace as the others with
no allowances made for their special strengths. So they become
disaffected, and then disruptive.
(d) Society loses when special needs are
not metin economic terms at least. The individual and his
family also lose. People tend to breed most happily with people
who are their equalsin intellectual capacity. A child who
is unable to access that group later is going to make unsuccessful
relationships with consequent difficulties.
5(a) The biggest problem we face is the notion
that nobody wants to be a boff, that a boff is a lonely and rather
odd person. Many teachers seem to share this view and are intimidated
by children who appear to be brighter than themalthough
it is acceptable to be a faster sprinter than the teacher! I believe
that the first challenge is to make it OK to be very cleverwe
are not all equal and society already accepts that some are more
beautiful/tall/sporty/amusing, etc., than others.
(b) Children need to be identified much earlier
when the discrepancy is so much more significant. My three year
old fluent reader (he also knows his tables, can count in french
and plays a mean game of snooker) is not like other three year
olds and both he and his family need help. There needs to be an
acceptance that some children will fit in better with an older
age-group for some subjects, that a comprehensive range of opportunities
will be necessary for all children and imperative for some.
(c) Teachers must learn how to teach the
highly able. They must remember to use open-ended questions, to
encourage thinking skills, to reward enthusiastic effort. They
must be given the time to differentiate for children who may seem
to just gobble up the work, and time to locate appropriate resources.
(d) Expectations should be higher. There
seems to have been a "dumbing-down" so that although
students study in greater breadth, they aren't expected to think
much about a lot of it. All homework should be looked forall
schools have a policy, but my experience as a parent and an E.P.
is that if work isn't done, no-one notices for ages; the gifted
can be lazy too and need to be encouraged to give of their best.
Raising expectations of the most able will raise expectations
and achievements across the board.
(e) Government documents should specify this
group when appropriate. Teachers should be reminded that Literacy
Hour needs to take them into account, etc.
The highly able get a rotten deal and are short-changed
of their share of the education budget. This is largely due to
government policies which a) exempted them from the category "special
needs" and b) allocated no extra money when demanding that
more should be done for them. Meeting their needs will have financial
Many educationalist are not good at recognising
the most able. We fail to meet their needs at our peril: the most
able also make exceptional delinquents, hooligans and fraudsters.
Others drop out and become costly misfits.
Talented children are more obvious and seem
to arouse less envy within education. It's easier to accept that
your child will never by Nigel Kennedy or Picasso; much harder
to believe he won't be as good as Johnny is at French and German.
And parents are very often teachers too.