The publicity surrounding 12-year-old Sufiah Farooq, who is to enter Oxford University to read a four-year mathematics degree, and the Cabinet decision to award her a scholarship, should focus national attention on a much neglected area on education in Malaysia - the gifted and talented children in the schools in the country.
According to Universiti Malaya social psychologist Prof Dr. Chiam Heng Keng, Malaysia is not short of child geniuses and gifted children but they are waiting to be identified and their innate intelligence cultivated for their true potential to be realised.
She estimated there were about 300,000 intellectually gifted primary school children in the country although there were far fewer child geniuses.
She said although many of these children were doing well in school, the lack of a motivating and challenging environment hindered the realisation of their true potential.
Our national education system will be doing these 300,000 gifted and talented children as well as the the nation a great disservice if it fails to recognise their special educational needs and develop their potential to the fullest.
Many countries are beginning to realise that gifted and talented children have special needs if they are to reach their full potential, resulting in a reconsideration of the “tall poppy” syndrome - which means that individuals who blossom ahead of their chronological peers are not encouraged to bloom, but held back until all can bloom together.
As a result, more and more countries are having a special education policy and strategy to foster the gifts and talents of children.
Malaysia should be no exception, and the Education Ministry should draw up a policy on education for gifted and talented children, amend the 1996 Education Act such as to allow a gifted child to complete the six-year primary schooling in two or three years, and set up a special unit in the Education Ministry to implement a strategy to foster the development of the full potential of gifted and talented children in the country.
Such a strategy would involve curricular differrentiation and educational programmes such as acceleration, enrichment and mentoring and should enlist the help of parents and principals to take measures to recognise the gifts and talents of children.
A national policy to recognise and foster gifted and talented children to develop their potential to the fullest will be in line with the creation of a Knowledge Society in Malaysia in the new millennium.