Israel should expand its education programs for gifted children, and invest more in identifying such pupils at a younger age, according to a report prepared by the Education Ministry's Steering Committee on Furthering the Gifted.

The committee said establishing a number of schools throughout the country for gifted pupils should be seriously considered. The panel's recommendations are due to be discussed by the ministry's director general, Shmuel Abuav, and other officials soon.

About 12,000 pupils participate in various programs for gifted children, a figure that constitutes one percent of the country's pupils.

Identifying gifted pupils begins in the second and third grades, and is carried out in two stages: first by the school in which the children are enrolled, and then through the use of special tests prepared by the Sald Institute according to ministry criteria.

Programs for gifted children include after-school activities, weekly programs for educational enrichment, and special classes incorporated in regular schools.

The selection process for special programs has been criticized due to the relatively high percentage of girls and low percentage (10 percent) of Israeli Arab children. The number of children of Ethiopian immigrants participating in the programs is also very low.

Two-thirds of the schools with classes for gifted pupils are in Tel Aviv and the country's center.

Professor Zamira Mevorah of Bar Ilan University headed the steering committee, which included Nobel laureate Professor Aharon Chehanover of the Technion, Safed College President Professor Baruch Nevo, and the Director General of The Society for Excellence through Education, Hezki Arieli.

The committee was asked to formulate an Education Ministry policy addressing the needs of gifted children following the presentation of a report by Nevo two and a half years ago.

Among the panel's recommendations is expanding the number of gifted children by broadening the criteria to encompass two main groups: those with the highest marks, who constitute one percent of all pupils and will be termed "gifted," and those deemed "excellent" with marks placing then in the four percentile points after gifted pupils.

The tests for identifying gifted pupils will be formulated according to "local norms," which the committee explained as being adapted to various regions throughout the country. These examinations will not only include mathematics and sciences, but also seek out those with exceptional talents in the arts, music and writing.

The committee also recommended "adding elements dealing with motivation, persistence and creativity" to the current examinations.

"According to our plan, an excellent pupil will be one in every 20 children, and a gifted [pupil] will be one in 100," a committee source said. "This is a significant increase in the number of pupils, but it is still unclear whether there is available funding for the program," the source added.

"Our recommendations are to deepen and broaden programs for the gifted," another committee member said. The aim of the examinations "are to grant an equal chance to children from different backgrounds. It is unfair to compare the capabilities of a child from northern Tel Aviv with those who grew up in the periphery."

Another panel recommendation is to identify gifted pupils at an earlier age. Although there is no unanimous agreement among experts over the value of selection at an earlier age, the proposal involves children as young as four.