Is the Gifted Stream still relevant?

Is the Gifted Stream still relevant?
An enrichment session at The Learning Lab. It is estimated that two-thirds of primary-level GEP pupils take extra lessons outside of school. Some critics say that if the GEP is working well, why do these pupils need extra classes? And if they require and receive stimulation from extra classes, do they still need the GEP?.

It is mid-afternoon on a Friday when many children are relaxing at the end of the school week.

But in an air-conditioned classroom at enrichment centre The Learning Lab, seven children are debating the adequacy of the global response to the radical group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The children are just 10-year-old Primary 4 pupils.

The fact that they are tackling such a difficult topic at such a young age would surprise many people. Yet an even bigger surprise rears its head - why are they taking extra classes at a private centre?.

They are, after all, from the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) which, through a screening test at the end of Primary 3, selects the top 1 per cent of the cohort, or about 400 to 500 pupils a year.

The Learning Lab says it coaches 460 GEP primary school kids, almost a third of pupils in the programme each year. Another centre, Mind Stretcher Learning Centre, says it has an enrolment of 450 GEP primary pupils.

Going by the figures from these two centres alone, two-thirds of primary-level GEP pupils are taking extra lessons outside of school. Most of those at The Learning Lab take two or three 90-minute classes a week. Three such weekly classes add up to about $900 a month.

The pupils say they are there because they want to, and not because their parents asked them to. A typical comment: "The classes are interesting and help me keep up with my classmates who are all very smart."

But if the GEP is working well, why do these pupils need extra classes? And if they require and receive stimulation from extra classes, do they still need the GEP?

Many also point to the fact that the majority of GEP pupils come from advantaged backgrounds. They have been put through hours of enrichment classes in speech, drama and music, ballet, phonics and Kumon maths, just to name a few. And, of course, there is private tuition as well.

As parent Alan Ong, 36, says: "Should public money then be spent on extending their advantages further?"

Supporters of the 30-year-old scheme say it is essential in helping the nation's brightest sparks burn brightly, but naysayers believe the extra resources it soaks up would be better spent on less privileged children.

Hothousing required

Under the GEP at nine primary schools - Anglo-Chinese Primary, Catholic High, Henry Park, Nan Hua, Nanyang, Raffles Girls', Rosyth, St Hilda's and Tao Nan - pupils are supervised closely by teachers in smaller classes.

They cover the same syllabus as their peers in the regular mainstream programme, but at greater depth and with more emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.

The GEP was run similarly in secondary schools hosting it until the six-year Integrated Programme (IP) was introduced in 2004. Under that, secondary school students can proceed to junior college without taking O-level examinations.

Schools use the time freed up to stretch students further. These schools began to run their own GEP and not the Ministry of Education (MOE) one, which was phased out in secondary schools in 2008.

Those who have been through the programme are thankful for it. They say it nurtured their intellectual curiosity and pushed them to go further in their studies. But they are ambivalent when asked about the scheme nurturing leaders who will go on to give back to society.

One, a scientist in his 30s, says: "That's a tall order. I really don't think you can nurture leaders through a school programme." Educators support the scheme.

Ms Clarinda Choh, a veteran GEP teacher at Hwa Chong Institution, says: "It is a joy and challenge to teach gifted students. They are curious, learn fast, have outstanding memory, are able to reason abstractly and make unique connections among ideas.

The challenge for a GEP teacher is to design lessons that will allow them to use all these abilities."

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