Recently the Blackstones were told that their teenage daughter, who had won a prize for, as her brother put it, "perpetual excellence", was within the top 4 per cent of ability at her state comprehensive and officially classified as "talented". A year ago the Gillmans were told that their daughter, a very able gymnast, had been designated "gifted" and had therefore become eligible for extra coaching and could even be selected for a special sports school. Both daughters, from families I know well, had been picked out as part of the government's "Gifted and Talented" programme, launched last year through the state education system to nurture bright and athletic children. Building on the success of the summer schools organised by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, which yesterday received the final applications for this year's Summer Schools, the "G&T" programme is an attempt to bring these benefits to many more children.

You might think both families would be cock-a-hoop; in fact, the announcements have brought as much dismay as pleasure. Kathy Blackstone has spent her motherhood consistently allowing her children as much room as possible to fail. It is not that their talents haven't been encouraged, just that there has been an insistence that what counts is the pleasure of doing whatever it is - reading, maths, playing the piano - to the best of your ability, rather than being exceptional. Now the whole family is plunged into confusion about the meaning of this new designation for the youngest daughter, and she has become aggressively interested in how she looks in order to combat accusations of being a swot. Her steady but largely invisible rise to the top at school has suddenly become an issue.

Jo Gillman gave a more determined response to her daughter's news and resisted it. She did not want a sensitive 12-year-old, who is very good at a number of things, to be singled out and swept up into a system requiring obsessive dedication to one talent. She has allowed her to train for the county outside school hours but no more.

These might seem paradoxical reactions. On the narrow line you run as a parent - between feeling responsible for the full expression of whatever gifts your children might have and not wanting to distort their natural development by mistaking gifts that are not there - surely a little official recognition and support can only be helpful? And from a wider perspective, isn't it better for everybody - for the gifted child, for the country - if genuine talents are recognised?

Certainly, growing up, I had nothing but admiration for the one or two exceptionally gifted children I knew: a family of string players, who seemed to live in an ethereal other world of higher values; a brilliant school friend whose mind was as challenging as it was a pleasure; and my own brother, who was a gifted tennis player and whose talent seemed to arrive fully formed out of nowhere when he was about 11 and propel him instantly into a strange world of coaching, sponsorship, rankings, trials and tournaments.

On the other hand, I was dimly aware too of the immense focus and discipline required of them, the dreaminess of adolescence they had to forgo, and the pressure on them to perform. As my brother once put it: "I spent my teenage years staggeringly insecure about losing."

The British have a reputation for being determinedly cool about exceptional talents. We may adore our sporting heroes but in almost every other area of achievement we look askance at brilliance as if it were something flashy and foreign. While we encourage the mediocre not to hide their lights under bushels, show-offs are firmly put in their place, children are snapped at for being too clever by half and the pushy mother, a comic heroine in Jewish and Italian tradition, has become a loathed, demonic figure.

But whereas Labour governments were once at the forefront of institutionalising this aggressive levelling instinct, over the past five years Tony Blair's government has set in train an extraordinary ideological volte face. Where once the truly gifted and talented were an embarrassment to be ignored, allowed to flourish only by accident or in the private sector, now the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has made seeking these children out and devising programmes to enable them to realise their talents a central plank of its educational strategy.

The new programmes range from training teachers to identify gifted and talented children and then implement distinct teaching strategies to accommodate their needs, to supplying all kinds of out-of-hours extra tuition - whether in sport, dance or mathematics. In 2000 the national system of summer schools for gifted and talented children was established, followed in February 2002 by the opening of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY), based at Warwick University and set up to develop special educational opportunities for gifted and talented young people in England. Almost 40,000 children are benefiting from its courses. The same year the DfES renamed its support of free places at specialist music and dance schools the Music and Dance Scheme, while in April 2003, the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, announced a £3m package to establish a specialist youth dance agency and a further £2.65m support for the country's leading youth orchestras.

All these schemes articulate a recognition that just as special needs children require special resources and training and even special schools, so talented and gifted children require special provision, if necessary by the state. Whether it is anxiety that an underachieving nation will lose cultural, economic and with it political clout in the world, or an egalitarian zeal to bridge the chasm that so often leaves gifted children from poor families stranded the other side of excellence, "gifted and talented" have become buzz words. According to the government, you are talented if you perform in the top 5-10 per cent in one or more academic subjects, and gifted if you are in the top 5-10 per cent in other areas - dance, music, art or sport.

For some private organisations, the mystery is why it has taken the state so long to recognise and meet the need. Since 1991 the Royal Ballet has been running its "Chance to Dance" scheme, alongside its regular scholarship scheme, seeking out children, in primary schools in south London, who have never had ballet lessons for special tuition. In parallel, music schools that have always run regular auditions for gifted children and offered generous scholarships are gratified to have their efforts supported. Stephen Thomas, director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), is also broadly in favour, hoping that the government's initiatives might lift the stigma of difference and counter the cultural perception of bright children as desperately uncool: "We don't like labels but we do have to acknowledge that some children are exceptionally able, and that just to take them through the National Curriculum in their natural year group can be very frustrating and counter-productive."

For years the NAGC has been developing programmes to help parents and teachers extend and challenge their children while keeping them within their year group and at their local school - just as the Gifted and Talented programme intends to. But whereas in the past children were very reluctant to be seen to be clever, now, according to a recent report, increasing numbers of secondary school children are taking Open University degree modules and 98 per cent of child members of NAGTY are aiming for a place at a first rank university. As Thomas says of the National Academy: "There is a very clear need, but so far it only takes on children from 11. It is important to identify gifted children at pre-school, if you are to provide consistency and continuity in their education."

There are, however, dissenting voices. Professor Joan Freeman, a visiting lecturer at Middlesex University, is a psychologist specialising in gifted children. She was a consultant on the government's "Gifted and Talented" programme. She feels that the whole matter of deciding who is and who is not a gifted child is fraught with difficulty and that the label brings only problems. "The bizarre system of identifying the top 5 per cent of every class irrespective of the particular intake or overall standard of the school, is simple tokenism." A "talented" child in one school might have a real struggle just to keep up in a more selective school. Moreover, the selection is based on children already achieving: "For me, giftedness describes not only high achievers but also those whose gifts have not yet been seen."

In addition, the way teachers and parents choose can be highly subjective. One parent I spoke to found that her son had been labelled musically gifted simply because a teacher at a specialist school needed to fill her quota, and Cathy Blackstone and Jo Gillman are not the only parents concerned that their children may simply become pawns in a particular teacher or school's game, irrespective of their true needs.

In her book, Gifted Children Grown Up, Freeman unfolds the lives of 210 children she has been following since 1974, some of whom were labelled gifted, others of whom were gifted but unlabelled, and a randomly selected control group. While Freeman acknowledges that giftedness exists ("This is quite a statement!") and that clearly giftedness cannot flourish without opportunity, her research indicates that the label is not a good thing. "The essence is to remember that a child is a child, with aspirations of its own. Lay on the mantel of giftedness, which some children feel is a terrible burden, and you give the child only two options: either to contract to fulfil the parent's dreams and necessarily fail, or else to rebel." In her experience, children are often labelled because they are already a problem to be solved. The giftedness is identified as the problem, and can become the scapegoat for every difficulty in their lives. She does, however, make a concession for music and dance: "These are special talents and do require so much time to perfect."

Jeremy Menuhin, the pianist and youngest son of Yehudi Menuhin, agrees. "Music needs very early development. Whether you are an instrumentalist or a composer, there is so much - technically, intellectually - that has to be absorbed, that has to become second nature before you can use it." Observing the children who attend the Yehudi Menuhin School founded by his father, he acknowledges that it is very good for some children, brought up to believe they are exceptional by doting parents, to find themselves in a challenging environment, just one of a crowd. It can also be very stimulating for children who have been isolated by their talent to find themselves part of a community that recognises and understands their gifts. But Menuhin is highly sceptical about the whole child prodigy circus. "My father was a genuine prodigy, like Mozart, and his talent for the violin was very much his own discovery, but he was also the first son of very, very ambitious parents. They withdrew him from school and subjected him to a very strict education. The speed with which he developed must have been owing to this pressure - but he disliked it intensely and did not want it for his children." Menuhin feels that most child prodigies are the result of ambitious parenting, "usually the first or only sons of obsessive mothers", and that only one in a thousand have genuine talent.

Peter Sheppard Skaerved, professor of the violin at the Royal Academy of Music, concurs: "I deal with the debris of gifted childhoods all the time." Students who have spent their childhoods closeted in specialist music schools emerge very highly trained and very confident, "but they have had no experience of life. They get to the point where the differences between themselves and other people who have had to take a longer route evaporate, and they have nothing to draw on." Furthermore, they are so in thrall to a notional gold standard of achievement that they are frightened to take risks, in case they fail. "I hate the notion of a hierarchy of talent. While some children can run to a simple result very fast, another can show all the signs of driving somewhere interesting one day but has to go through hard and unfruitful areas first." Sheppard Skaerved himself was not identified as a prodigy, while his brother was and feels that the labelling was unhelpful for them both. The sons of a music teacher who took a strong interest in what they were doing, it seemed to Sheppard Skaerved that while he struggled to get across technically what he wanted passionately to express, by the time his brother was five, "he was unbelievable." But it was his brother who faltered in his adolescence, while Peter kept at it. He once asked his first important teacher what he had identified in him at 11. The teacher replied, "You had the simple look in your eye that you would not be deflected." In the end it is this quality that lies behind all true achievement, and it is as hard to prescribe for as talent itself.

Besides the innate qualities of the child, however, everyone agrees that the primary factor in both the emergence of talent and high achievement is the family. For it is in the context of a family that a child takes up football or ballet, the violin or the bass guitar, and it is within that intense crucible of values and personalities that ambitions are defined and achieved. It can be a hard school. But despite horror stories of parental ambitions run amok, it is also generally only within a family that a child's full complement of needs can be met and that the challenge of being talented can be offset by a breezy normality. For the Blackstones and Gillmans, there was no doubt. However apparently generous, even visionary, the government's commitment to enabling the truly talented to fulfil their gifts, the whole strategy of labelling and targets is too rigid and fraught with other priorities for it necessarily to be in the best interests of your particular child. In the end probably the best chance any child has of a successful life lies in a supportive family that encourages her to make the most of herself in every respect without requiring that any particular talents do more than provide a lifelong resource of pleasure and meaning. Britain may win even fewer Olympic gold medals, but after all, who is counting?

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