Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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 have—almost as an indulgence—been 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 name—e.g., every fourth in any one age group—for 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 provide—they 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 resources—people, books, equipment—that 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 time—if 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 met—in economic terms at least. The individual and his family also lose. People tend to breed most happily with people who are their equals—in 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 them—although 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 clever—we 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 for—all 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 implications.

  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.

Ruth Coppard

June 1998

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