Tracker of talent with 200,000 in her sights

May 12, 2006

Deborah Eyre is compiling a register of the most able children, an initiative that she says promotes equality, not elitism. Claire Sanders meets her

Tucked away on Warwick University's modern campus is a quietly spoken professor who could help universities unravel the Gordian knot of access.

Deborah Eyre is a name that is likely to become increasingly familiar to academics as they work to ensure that they attract the brightest children from all types of schools.

Eyre, the director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, has been charged by the Government with the task of compiling a national register of the top 5 per cent of the most able children in England. The idea is to track what will eventually be about 200,000 pupils through secondary school and into university.

The news this week that the disadvantaged children in the first national academy cohort do as well as their affluent peers is important. The academy has struggled against accusations of elitism and what Eyre calls "ambivalence across the system". To date, many schools have been reluctant to register pupils with the academy, and there have been a number of high-profile critics.

Alan Smithers of Buckingham University has been one of the most vocal, describing the idea of singling out bright children in this way as "deeply flawed".

Eyre is insistent that many of the criticisms stem from misunderstandings.

"Those who have taken the time to understand the thinking behind the promotion of gifted and talented education quickly appreciate that it is an egalitarian and highly exciting agenda," she says.

Eyre began her career as a primary schoolteacher in the late 1970s. "It was my experience that the brightest pupils were being neglected by the state system," she says. "I felt very strongly that it was a question of equality of opportunity. These children were being denied the chance to achieve their potential."

Her approach is strongly egalitarian. "The assumption, time and time again, is that if you encourage the most able you encourage the affluent, the middle class. My experience as a teacher is that this is simply not the case. I found that many of the children who responded well to a challenging curriculum were some of the more disruptive pupils who would be described as less advantaged," she says.

Over the past 25 years, Eyre has seen the education of very able children become a mainstream concern. In 1984, the National Association for Able Children in Education was set up to support teachers. It built on the work of the seminal Gifted Child project, run by the Schools Council. This work was in turn informed by the National Association for Gifted Children, set up to support the increasingly frustrated parents of gifted children.

In the 1980s, Eyre worked as an adviser to schools in Oxfordshire on developing education for their most able pupils. Her book Able Children in Ordinary Schools is seen as a key text. She went on to establish a research centre for able children at Oxford Brookes University as well as training programmes for gifted and talented education co-ordinators in schools.

In the late 1990s, the Labour Government published a strategy to help support gifted and talented pupils. "You should not have to go to a private school to be stretched," said David Miliband, Schools Minister at that time.

The Government channelled money into education of the gifted and talented, initially through the Excellence in Cities initiative, which supported schools and pupils in some of the most deprived areas of the UK.

"This was Estelle Morris's great contribution," Eyre says of the former Education Secretary. "She was told that these schools would simply not have gifted and talented pupils. That was not the case."

Last October's White Paper on education placed a strong emphasis on "personalised learning", stressing that this would benefit the most able as well as special-needs children. It also announced that £1 million would be channelled through Goal!, a four-year pilot programme for at-risk groups, to ensure that underrepresented groups benefited from the academy.

The Government has adopted simple definitions of "gifted" and "talented".

Gifted describes those pupils who show the most promise and ability in academic subjects and talented are those who demonstrate the greatest potential in sports or arts.

But the academy likes to talk of children with "multiple exceptionalities".

Eyre stresses that admission is not based solely on national curriculum test results at Key Stage 2. "We look at a number of factors, including school reports and other intelligence tests," she says. She also stresses that the register is fluid. "Children can be added to it over time," she says.

Internationally, the Government's approach to educating gifted and talented children has become known as the "English model". "Under this model, the idea is to develop a curriculum that stretches the most able children, not to take children out of the classroom and hothouse them," says Eyre. "A demanding curriculum raises standards across the board."

Eyre says the greatest challenge for educating gifted and talented children is ensuring that it is equitable. "Children from all socioeconomic groups must benefit from the academy," she says.

She points out that schools are also encouraged to identify their top 10 per cent of able children and to ensure that their needs are met. For some schools this can mean hundreds of pupils, with names constantly added to the list. To help them do this, schools are increasingly appointing co-ordinators who use the academy as a resource.

As for universities, Eyre sees tremendous potential for working with the academy. "We already work with more than 50 universities and colleges to provide a range of opportunities, from online courses to summer schools,"

she says. "We should become an important access tool for universities.

Through us they will be able to develop relationships with underrepresented group of pupils, raising their expectations and aspirations."

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