Spotting gifted children used to be scorned as elitist. Now a university is being urged to help teach the brightest youngsters lost in inner-city schools. Bibi Berki reports.
Joe Renzulli - one of the two US authorities on the education of gifted children (his wife, Sally Reis, is the other) - describes how he was visited by a delegation of Japanese educationists. The Japanese, he says, were staunchly opposed to any form of special education for gifted children. So the professor was surprised by their interest. After the introductions, he asked why they wanted to learn from his programme for identifying and supporting gifted children. "Because we don't have any Nobel prize winners," they said. "All the prize winners come from your country." The West comes up with the inventions and the Japanese manufacture them, they said.
This story goes down well with the members of Brunel University's school of education, where the US professors have been guests of honour at the launch of the Urban Scholars Programme. The West has a strong reputation for innovation. Our inventors, it is generally agreed, are the mavericks, the inspired few who pursue their obsessions above and beyond conventional education. They seem to get through the system against the odds rather than by the encouragement of others. Look at Trevor Baylis - the inventor of the Baygen clockwork radio was turned down by every British company before he finally set up the Baygen Power Group with a factory in Cape Town.
But the whole notion of separating gifted (or "higher ability") children from those who become "the rest" for special educational purposes has always been fraught with problems. Many countries have discouraged it, and Renzulli met hostile receptions in Holland, West Germany and Australia in the 1970s.
But in Britain in the late 1990s, things are now moving the other way. The government's Excellence in Cities programme seeks to pilot masterclasses and summer schools for gifted pupils. And Brunel University's urban scholars programme aims to "provide very able students from selected urban areas with the necessary academic skills, motivation and self-esteem to achieve their full potential". The notion is that, from the age of 12, these children will be helped to achieve the high grades they are capable of so they can get university places and enter professions that would once have been unthinkable for them.
The British stars in this field are another couple, Valsa Koshy and Ron Casey. Directors of Brunel's Able Children's Centre, they are passionate about raising educational standards. Their philosophy, in a nutshell, is:
"Improve the opportunities for the few and you improve the standards of the others." Bright children from deprived areas who are encouraged to go to university will open the doors for their contemporaries and, in the end, improve their social environment.
"This must be the biggest development as far as inner-city children are concerned in this country because when inner-city talent is encouraged it regenerates not only the family but the whole area," says Koshy. Koshy and Casey, former teachers from London, originally worked in an advisory capacity with children referred to them from schools or charities. But they realised that to make a difference they had to work through local education authorities and schools. In 1995, when they were based at Brunel University, they launched the Able Children's Centre (BACE). Casey, a former head of mathematics, works on the theoretical development of teaching higher-ability children. Koshy applies it directly to schools. They work with LEAs around the country and run the only university-based centre in the United Kingdom that looks into higher-ability children.
BACE offers teachers an extended Masters course on aspects of identifying and providing for higher-ability pupils. It researches all aspects of higher ability and the curriculum needs of these pupils. Now, with a grant from Wandsworth LEA, where the pilot project for urban scholars will be run, and government money via the Excellence in Cities programme, the issue is bound to have a higher profile. "It was an area that was neglected," says Koshy. "Many people saw it as an elitist concept so it never had the interest it deserved."
As well as the conceptual obstacles, the barriers in the way of bright children come from lack of resources, low teacher expectation and no parental aspiration. The trouble with much inner-city education, says Koshy, is that many children simply do not have the aspiration to pursue high-profile professions. "If they do, it is unlikely they will be identified and helped because schools have other problems. It's not that teachers don't want to help, it's that they don't know how," says Koshy.
The urban scholars programme, which will begin in September, will give pupils from socially disadvantaged urban areas access to university facilities and counselling by university staff. Koshy and Casey have to find the first batch from Wandsworth secondary schools. They will be helped by members of Brunel's School of Education. There are potential problems - not least, possible bullying by pupils not involved in the scheme. But Koshy believes the centre must work closely with the schools to minimise the risk. "The whole school is told that nobody is barred from this. Nobody is being excluded."
Her passion for the project is matched by a deep sympathy for bright children who are lost in the system. "We won't fail them," she says of the first cohort of urban scholars. Even if the money to bring them to the university runs out, she says, "we won't abandon them".
In the end, the scheme is as good as the money put into it, which is more than before but probably still not enough. In the US, the Renzulli/Reis team is getting White House backing for its quest to pull US education out of its perilous state. The main difference between the US and UK programmes, says Koshy, is that the American counterparts are multimillion-dollar projects.
A BRIGHT BOY WHO'S GOING NOWHERE
Oscar, 11, has an exceptional ability in sciences. He is bright, enthusiastic and full of ideas. Brought up by his mother in inner London, he was sponsored by his local authority to attend the Able Children's Centre at Brunel University.
For six months he received "mentoring" from the head of science at Brunel. The academic said Oscar was excited about being part of the programme and that he impressed her with his ideas.
When the programme was over Oscar's mother put him in for entrance exams to a number of private schools and he was accepted. But she could not afford the fees and no other assistance was available.
She has written to BACE, thanking them for the excitement they brought to her son's life, but explaining that he was unlikely to get the support he needed in his new school. Dr Valsa Koshy describes the case as "heartbreaking". But it raises the issue that without support, the programme can achieve little.
HOW THE PROGRAMME WILL WORK
For most pupils the first glimpse they get of a university is at an open day during A levels. But for those in the urban scholars programme, university will become their second home from about the age of 12.
They will be selected by observation, instead of IQ tests, which BACE considers flawed and unfair. Ability will be judged on learning skills and motivation levels.
The scheme starts in September, when about 20 12 to 13-year-old secondary pupils from one or two Wandsworth schools will be invited to attend Brunel University on Saturdays or after school. Those who cannot afford to travel will have their costs met by the centre. They will be told they can be what they want. Until they sit their GCSEs and perhaps beyond, they will be in an experimental hothouse, where university tutors will inspire them.
Because it is a pilot project it is impossible to predict how many pupils will make it to undergraduate level, but Dr Valsa Koshy is confident of its benefits as a model for wider use.
HOW THEY DO IT IN THE US
The US equivalent of BACE (though on a much larger scale) is the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented, based at the University of Connecticut.
The centre has devised a system of "enrichment clusters" to make learning more enjoyable. According to Professor Joe Renzulli, the centre's director, the clusters create a time and place in the weekly schedule to focus students' attention on "authentic learning applied to real-life problems".
US reformers are facing the same problem as their UK counterparts in their efforts to give bright children a more fulfilling education. The quality-of-education debate is just as rampant and schools are under pressure to raise test scores and cope with a demanding curriculum.