Leave those brainy kids alone

What to do with very clever children? Nothing. Intelligence doesn't die through neglect
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE BIG, bad idea of the week emanated, as so often, from the House of Commons. But, for a change, it wasn't the regular inmates, but a visitor giving evidence to the Education Select Committee's inquiry into the education of highly-able children. Mr Ian McNiff, chairman of the pressure group, Children of High Intelligence, and a headmaster, was suggesting that tests should be introduced to identify very able children from the age of four or five. The Government is bringing basic tests into infant schools from September. The tasks required of children starting school will be to recognize numbers from one to 10, write their own names, recognise letters by shape and sound, and concentrate without supervision.

Mr McNiff was suggesting to the committee that additional tests were needed to identify high potential; to show if a child can read a book, for instance. "I don't think we know how able children are. I have had children come into school with a reading age of 14. I once had a girl who had read Little Women at the age of four."

At this point, alarm bells ought to start ringing. The implication of what Mr McNiff was saying was: Something Must Be Done. It is a familiar cry from campaigners, journalists and pressure groups, who have identified a situation which public institutions don't seem to be very interested in. It is difficult for such people to understand that sometimes, Nothing Must Be Done, is a more sensible slogan, although admittedly it isn't much of a rallying call. There is a bright, four-year- old girl reading Little Women in Hampshire, and the Government doesn't seem to know about it. So Something Must Be Done.

What, however, is to be done with a child so conspicuously coping for herself, is not altogether clear. The problem with all these pressure groups for the education of gifted children is that they are dominated by the opinions of failures; by parents convinced that their children have not lived up to their early potential because they were not "stretched" enough; by people who could do long division in their heads at six and are stacking shelves at 18. They are sinister enough, but they are nowhere near as dislikeable as the sort of people who are only interested in precocity. I don't really see why a four-year-old girl who can read Little Women is more interesting or remarkable than the intelligence which wrote Little Women in the first place.

And that brings us to the point. Able adults were, on the whole, able children. I mean, I was quite a brainy child, the sort of kid who would take out 10 novels from the public library every single week. But I know perfectly well that if Mr McNiff had been in the vicinity, I wouldn't have been allowed to sit quietly in a corner; I would have been blown up, stretched, and never been allowed a moment's peace.

No one can seriously suppose that there are huge reserves of unfulfilled potential in this country. Instead of concentrating on able children who come to nothing, the Select Committee would do very well to consider the vast mass of intelligent and successful people who pass through a very ordinary series of schools, stretch themselves, and become remarkable not through intensive coaching and cramming, but by the combination of a good public library and an education of benign neglect.

It might even be the case that the originality and awkward habits-of- thinking of highly able adults develops when they are bored at school; in the long hours of staring out of windows, the afternoon's easy task long ago accomplished. Every intelligent person remembers that sense of irritation, without always realising that boredom and irritation can be as stimulating as the Children's Britannica. The struggle against mediocrity is so important, I can't help thinking that Mr McNiff would do better to found a National Association For The Suppression of Gifted Children.

What is to be done with very intelligent children? Well, nothing. Because intelligence is not some kind of tender plant which will die through neglect; it will find its own ways. It is much more likely to founder if it is pushed in the wrong directions, or pushed too hard at the wrong times. It is a difficult thing for teachers to accept, but a very original and sharp mind will not benefit from being directed by more conventional minds.

Education, in the end, is a solitary business; Mr McNiff's juvenile reader of Little Women is teaching herself, and, with luck, will go on teaching herself all her life. She has found her way to a library; from that point, the only thing which will stop her is some boring adult, following her and annoying her by trying to guide her, mould her, and teach her.