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Gifted and talented: your questions answered

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If you've been told your child is highly able, you'll have lots of questions. We asked the experts to explain what to expect.

What does gifted and talented/highly able mean?

If your child excels academically, they might be described as gifted and talented, more/most able, highly able, or as having high learning potential.

In the past, gifted and talented referred to the top 5-10% of pupils in a primary school class, but the Department for Education and Ofsted no longer set a benchmark. This means that designating a child as gifted or highly able is somewhat subjective.

'There is no one rigid definition.' says Julie Taplin, Chief Executive of Potential Plus UK, the charity supporting children with high learning potential. 'Historically, "gifted" meant ability in academic subjects, such as maths and English, or a high IQ, often of 130 or above. "Talented" more often reflects ability in the arts, sport, music and leadership.'

There are ways that parents can spot children who are gifted learners, as well as characteristics that gifted and talented children tend to have. Your child's school can also offer guidance as to whether your child is more able.

How will being highly able affect my child?

Each child has their own specific needs. Some highly able children will sail through school without a single issue, excelling academically and achieving high grades; others may struggle to fit in and need help socially. They may be prone to perfectionism and poor self-confidence.

'These children already apply a lot of pressure to themselves, and inevitably feel it from their peers and school, so having parents and family adding to it, in however well-meaning a way, can be counter-productive,' says Robert Massey, teacher and author of From Able to Remarkable (Crown House).

Boredom can also be a problem if your child isn't challenged at school, leading to frustration and behavioural issues. It might also affect their attainment if they're turned off school, despite their high learning potential.

Will my child have to move up a year?

Schools will usually try to keep children in their own year group and provide challenge within that class, for example through extension tasks that enable them to explore a topic in greater breadth and depth, or by working in a small group with other more able children, possibly supported by a teaching assistant.

Enrichment activities are one way schools can expand subject knowledge to benefit the most able children.

Sometimes, though, schools and parents feel that a child should be moved up to the year above.

'Moving up a year is called acceleration,' says Julie Taplin. 'It can be done, but it is usually at the discretion of the headteacher in consultation with parents.' 

Your child could be accelerated in one subject, such as by taking maths with the year above, and spend the rest of their time with their own year group, or they could be moved up a year for all their subjects.

'You should always consider how your child will cope, not just intellectually, but also socially and emotionally, if they will be with older children,' Julie advises.

Is high ability considered a special educational need?

High learning potential isn't a special educational need as such, but highly able children do have the right to an education that is appropriate for their needs.  'Schools will have a teacher who is responsible for inclusion, which covers children with high learning potential,' says Julie.

This could be the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) or inclusion coordinator (INCO); alternatively, each subject lead may be responsible for overseeing children who are gifted in their subject (so the lead teacher for maths would support a child who is highly able in that subject).

Schools do support gifted and talented children, so it's important to find out what your school can do for your child, initally by talking to their class teacher. 

Sometimes, highly able children are given an individual education plan, or IEP. This is a plan that aims to help the child get the most out of their education, with specific strategies, actions and targets.

'Potential Plus UK would advocate for IEPs for children with high learning potential, to identify a child’s strengths and highlight possible areas where they need intervention and support,' says Julie.

Will my child have to take an IQ test?

It’s up to you to decide whether you want your child to do an IQ test, but bear in mind that having a high IQ won't necessarily 'prove' their intelligence to their school.

Ask yourself what you hope to achieve by having your child assessed. Is it for the prestige of being part of a high IQ society like Mensa UK, which provides IQ tests for children aged 10.5 and over? Or is it to arm yourself with information about their skills in the hope that their school will better cater for them?

'An intelligence test will measure how well your child is likely to do in school compared to thousands of other children of the same age,' says psychologist Professor Joan Freeman. 'It will tell you if your child’s abilities are exceptional for their age and show you their strengths and weaknesses.'

An alternative is a complete assessment by Potential Plus UK. This may be more valuable than a straight IQ test, as it assesses a broader set of skills and traits rather than simply reasoning and intelligence.

Should I push my child? Am I a pushy parent?

Many parents wonder if by encouraging their children’s gifts and talents they are being pushy.

'It’s important to consider your child’s emotional, social and intellectual wellbeing when you’re making decisions about their education and activities,' says Julie Taplin. 'If you’re worried that your child isn’t reaching their full potential you could try contacting Potential Plus UK to speak to an education consultant.'

Wanting your child to achieve everything they can isn't pushy; it can be a way to develop their strengths and keep them challenged and stimulated. But beware of piling on too much pressure, or filling every spare moment with tutoring, sport and music lessons. 

'Offering a child a range of opportunities and stimulus at home is all that is needed - along, of course, with love,' says Robert.

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