What does gifted and talented mean?

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Gifted and talented, more able, most able, high learning potential… We explain the terms that are used to describe high-flying kids, and how you can tell if your child is one.
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We all like to believe our kids are exceptional, and indeed, every child is exceptional in their own way.

Some children, however, have pronounced gifts or talents, either academically or in an area such as music or sport.

Identifying these potential high-flyers can help them get the support and challenge they need to excel, whether at school or in their own specialist field.

Gifted and talented: what does it mean?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Department for Education (DfE) introduced the term ‘gifted and talented’ or ‘G&T’ to describe children who were attaining at a high level at school.

At that time, G&T referred to children whose attainments put them in the top 5% of their year group. Later, this was changed to the top 10%.

However, percentages were not the only way – or necessarily the best – of identifying the most able children.

‘There is a difference between ability and attainment,’ explains Julie Taplin, Chief Executive of Potential Plus UK, a charity that supports young people with high learning potential.

‘Ability refers to a child’s potential, whereas attainment shows how well a child is using their ability.

‘Children who have a lot of potential may not actually be attaining highly, either because they are unsupported at school, or because they haven’t had opportunities to excel: for example, children who come from disadvantaged families, have difficult life circumstances, or have unidentified special educational needs.’

Some schools still refer to high achievers as G&T, but the descriptor is no longer used by the DfE – and there is no official replacement term, nor a fixed percentage of pupils who are considered to be G&T.

Many schools use the terms ‘more able’ or ‘most able,’ and Ofsted also uses these descriptors. Others use ‘high attainer,’ or ‘high current attainer.’

Meanwhile, Potential Plus UK prefers the term ‘high learning potential,’ or HLP, in recognition of the fact that the most able children are not necessarily the highest attainers.

‘They have the potential to achieve well academically or creatively, but may not be doing so,’ explains Julie.

What are the characteristics of the most able children?

When the DfE scrapped the gifted and talented label, it also stopped using its list of characteristics of G&T children.

Identifying a child who is ‘more/most able’ is generally a partnership between family and school. There are no formal attributes; however, Potential Plus UK lists the following characteristics, researched and developed by Dr Linda Silverman of the Gifted Development Center in the US: 

  • Able to learn quickly
  • Have a rich vocabulary
  • Have an excellent memory
  • Have a long attention span
  • Are early or avid readers
  • Persevere when interested
  • Have a wide range of interests
  • Are good at puzzles
  • Reason well
  • Show ability with numbers
  • Show compassion
  • Are perfectionists
  • Are intense
  • Are morally sensitive
  • Have strong curiosity
  • Are emotionally sensitive
  • Have a high level of energy
  • Prefer older companions or adults
  • Have a quirky or grown-up sense of humour
  • Are concerned with justice and fairness
  • Tend to question authority
  • Make judgements that are mature for their age at times
  • Are highly creative
  • Are keen observers
  • Have a vivid imagination

Bear in mind that these characteristics are not set in stone, although many high ability children will present with a significant number of them. Others will have talents outside the classroom, for example in music or sport.

It’s important not to get too hung up on terminology and descriptors, as long as your child is being well catered for by their school.

‘Ultimately, parents can’t know for sure if their child is gifted and talented, nor should they pressure themselves, their child and their school with such a label,’ says Robert Massey, teacher and author From Able to Remarkable: Help your Students become Expert Learners (Crown House Publishing).

‘Offering a range of opportunities and stimulus at home and at school is all that is needed.’

Should you have your child assessed?

It’s important to be aware that although it can be a good indicator of a child’s potential, an assessment for IQ alone will not provide answers to all of a parent’s questions about their child’s ability and attainment.

‘I would encourage parents to ask themselves why they want to have their child assessed. What kind of assessment are they considering? How do they hope it will help?’ says Julie.

‘Is it to understand their child’s learning profile, or to help the school understand this? Or are they looking for access to a high IQ society, such as British Mensa?’ This society provides IQ tests for children aged 10½ and above.

‘Most IQ tests look at various cognitive abilities, such as verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and provide a score based on a composite of the various areas,’ Julie explains.

An alternative is an assessment through an organisation such as Potential Plus UK.

Their assessments are valid for children from the age of 4½ years, and provide a broad profile of cognitive ability, as well as current academic achievement in reading, writing and maths; memory processing; phonological skills; processing speed; and sensory processing.

Parents receive a detailed report with recommendations about how to support their child’s learning profile and wellbeing at home, and can opt for an additional report for school with an action plan for the classroom.

‘It’s up to the school to decide whether or not to implement any of the recommendations, but Potential Plus UK can help them with this, often in a way that benefits not only the individual child, but also other learners in the class’ Julie says.

‘Clearly, testing is a personal decision for every family, but ask yourself how it will contribute to the wellbeing of your child, and how you can work with their school to offer stretch and challenge, regardless of the test result,’ says Robert.

‘High attaining pupils may already apply a lot of pressure to themselves, so having parents adding to it, in however well-meaning a way, can be counterproductive.’

For more information on testing, contact Potential Plus UK (01908 646433 or [email protected]) or Mensa (01902 772 771 or [email protected]).