HC Deb 17 January 1978 vol 942 cc233-5
9. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if she has issued any recent guidelines to local authorities concerning the integration of gifted children and other minority groups into the comprehensive schools; and what minimum size of school is required to make this educationally and economically feasible.

Miss Margaret Jackson

No, Sir. All comprehensive schools contain children with a wide range of abilities and needs, and the minimum viable size for a school will vary with local circumstances.

Mr. Winterton

Is the Under-Secretary aware that both parents and teachers feel that the large comprehensive school may not be able to cope adequately with gifted and other children in minority groups? Does she not feel that each local education authority should have a special adviser on gifted children and other minority groups, so that not only can they be identified at an early age, but that adequate education provision may be made for them?

Miss Jackson

I understand that many parents and teachers feel that schools of all types have always had difficulty in both identifying and helping truly gifted children. Indeed, I understand that in a comprehensive school, whether large or small, which, of its nature, is devoted to nurturing the talents of the individual child, there is far more chance that such a child will be helped than in a school which relies, for example, on rather old-fashioned methods, such as rigid setting, which do not help such children. The question of special advisers is for the local authorities involved, but I know that many have advisers considering these aspects of the matter.

Mr. Flannery

I commiserate with my hon. Friend in her having to answer such a loaded anti-comprehensive question from the Conservative Party, which recently espoused the cause of comprehensive education. Is it not a fact that there are splendid large and small comprehensive schools and that this matter is largely an irrelevancy? Is it not also a fact that the integration of all children in those schools is going on at an accelerated rate and that gifted children have far greater opportunities, due to the increases in staff, than ever they did, for instance, in the elitist chosen grammar schools?

Miss Jackson

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for both his sympathy and his assistance. He is, of course, quite correct. There are many superb comprehensive schools of varying sizes. Indeed, that message emerged most clearly from the conference recently held at York University to discuss successful patterns of education in comprehensive schools. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend's remarks on greater opportunities for children in those schools.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

May I attract the Minister away from the rotter of the Lower Fourth to the rather more serious problem of the tyranny of the age range for gifted children who are forced to stay with their chronological age group rather than being able to move up? Has the Department any views on mixed ability teaching and the very gifted?

Miss Jackson

If I may answer the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question first, I think it is generally accepted that the really gifted and exceptional child is often best helped on an individual basis, or perhaps with another small group of similar gifted children. Therefore, the question of mixed ability teaching does not particularly arise. There are difficulties in any kind of group which is composed of children of high academic ability, in the sense of the average spread of ability. The question of age range is undoubtedly a difficult one, and one of the reasons why people seek to deal with such children on an individual basis is the question whether they may suffer socially, as individuals, from being removed from their age groups as opposed to the benefit they may gain academically. It is the policy of schools and of Her Majesty's Inspectorate to try to deal with such children as individual cases.

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