Hong Kong needs to retain and nurture its young talent if it is to maintain its competitive edge. So it is good that more is being done to identify exceptionally gifted school students and provide them with avenues for accelerated development and fulfilment of their potential. The Academy for Gifted Education, which only opened in 2008, received more than 2,000 gifted student nominations from local secondary schools in the last quarter of last year, nearly 60 per cent more than the 1,277 in the same period a year earlier. The Education Bureau has also provided guidance for schools in how to manage accelerated learning by grade-skipping, subject- skipping (jumping ahead in some but not all subjects). It included counselling and pastoral support. This was a nod to concerns expressed by academics and psychologists that we do not know enough about the emotional and social pressures that grade-skipping and the like can create. In other words, normal childhood development among peers is not something to be sacrificed lightly.
There is no doubt, though, that exceptionally gifted students have special needs. The establishment of the academy was recognition of that. It was highlighted by the decision of Baptist University in 2007 to admit a nine-year-old for five years of study for degrees in mathematics, after he scored two As in the British A-level examinations, and applications by 13- and 14-year-olds to skip normal schooling and study at universities alongside the brightest young undergraduates. Admittedly the youngster was exceptional in other ways, having already completed two years of study at a tutorial college in Oxford, while his older brother studied at Oxford University. But the decision to have the university's child development centre monitor his personal development speaks for itself. Physically and emotionally he remains a child. That said, students fast-tracked to university have earned the privilege with hard work. Age should not be a barrier to development of their full potential.
But going to university means more than getting a good education or developing exceptional talent. It has become accepted as an important phase of development as a mature adult, involving interaction with peers and participation in the rich variety of university life. Parents who are fortunate to have a gifted child should remember that, because they are usually the ones pushing for recognition of intellectual gifts. That need not mean grade-skipping and pressure to excel, but that is where it can lead.
The development of gifted education has created a lucrative market in IQ tests requested by parents, which educational psychologists say have increased by 20 per cent. But academy associate director Abraham Tang says undue reliance on IQ testing can be counterproductive by boosting parental expectations of a young child's motivation to learn. One sixth-former told the South China Morning Post that being labelled as gifted could lead to extraordinary pressure from parental expectations. He quit a leadership course at the academy, which took out his Saturday mornings, because he wanted more time to develop other interests, like meeting friends. The academy's Tang tells of another boy who excelled in the IQ test but resisted parental eagerness for him to study at the academy because he did not want to - and therefore was clearly not ready. Might these two cases be examples of common sense, a gift we can all share? Amid the obsession with credentials and trying to do the best for our children, there is still room for it.