Plans to get secondary schools to put their most gifted and talented pupils on a national register were dismissed as a "gimmick" last night.
Critics of the drive, which the Government says is aimed at ensuring children from poorer backgrounds fulfil their potential, also claimed it would do exactly the opposite.
M inisters want every secondary school in the country to identify the brightest five per cent of their pupils to benefit from special programmes run by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick University or set up their own schemes.
It follows research from education charity the Sutton Trust suggesting only a fifth of children from poor homes go to university.
Professor Deborah Eyre, director of NAGTY, defended getting schools to put their brightest pupils on the register. "We all realise there are negative effects of labelling," she said.
"But there are also positive effects and they mainly for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"If you tell them they can go further than they ever thought they could that is changing their lives.
"It is elitist, but what is wrong with identifying pupils who excel in different areas?"
But Nigel Baker, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers' Birmingham branch, said: "This is a complete waste of time. The notion that schools don't know who is gifted and talented is nonsense. It is a headline grabbing thing which focuses on a tiny amount of pupils to distract from the bigger issue, which is the level of under-achievement. Most schools will see it as a gimmick and divisive because it is about labelling children."
Andrew Sutton, who has spent most of his life working with children with special educational needs in Birmingham, claimed middle class youngsters were most likely to get on such a register.
"The identification will be socially skewed if not biased," he said. "The tenancy will be for these children to be from relatively advantaged rather than disadvantaged families."
Jane Hattatt, head teacher of Lordswood Girls School in Harborne, added: "I am never happy about quangos where things get centralised.
"Also, how do you judge you are worthy to go on the register?"
Chris Woodhead, Ofsted's outspoken former chief inspector of schools, added t he problem was not identifying bright pupils, but offering them appropriate support.
"The problem is doing something for them and if secondary schools are not doing enough for the brightest children now, why are they going to do anything for them if they are on a register?"
NAGTY, which celebrating its 100,000th member today, says it is important that bright pupils are given the same support as children with special educational needs.
It claims 70 per cent of students feel membership has had a positive impact on their lives and 85 per cent say it has raised their self-esteem.
Schools Minister Andrew Adonis said: "We must stop the terrible waste of talent when children don't reach their full potential.
"This register will ensure they are spotted early and don't lose out because they come from a deprived background."