Child prodigies inspire both awe and anxiety. Where do they come from, what's to be done with them? Overleaf, children and their families speak to Lesley Gerard about growing up with these troubling gifts. Below, David Aaronovitch on the debate about intelligence. Photographs by Harry Borden
"Precocious - remarkable for early development; too forward." Thus the Oxford Dictionary definition summarily reveals to us our own feelings about very bright children. Bluntly, we do not like them. As parents, we crave normality (God make my child intelligent - but don't let her stick out!); as observers, we talk about youngsters who are too clever by half, or too bright for their own good. And we have an armoury of put-downs ready for the child who is "too forward" - don't show off, don't interrupt, don't keep asking questions, no one likes a know-all.

When their ability is truly prodigious, it feels creepy. We worry about where these wunderkinds have come from. Children who read before they can talk, and who ask questions that adults cannot even understand, occur without any real explanation in the families of gardeners and plumbers, as well as those of professors and surgeons. As in the Midwich Cuckoos, these odd kids seem to stare back at us with an alien light in their green eyes. Who sent them?

This resentment of the highly intelligent child is something that academics Valsa Koshy and her husband, Ron Casey, are very familiar with. On 1 September, Koshy and Casey will open the first centre in this country designed to undertake research into the phenomenon of very bright children. The Able Children's Education Centre, based at the Twickenham campus of Brunel University, will have as one of its tasks that of assisting teachers and schools to identify the "able and exceptionally able child", and to devise educational programmes appropriate to them. According to Casey, one of the biggest problems is the antagonism of some teachers and of their schoolmates towards the strange child. "Many hide their capabilities because of their fear of being picked on," he says, "so talent goes to waste."

Casey agrees that the whole project is highly controversial. For 50 years, the British education system has been convulsed by the question of whether or not to educate children by ability. Conservative elitists have been naturally attracted to the notion of selection. Egalitarians, on the other hand, just as naturally harbour a great suspicion of the idea of measurable intelligence. How can something as essentially diffuse and culturally varied as intelligence be measured at all? In any case, who is doing the measuring, and why? And what happens to those who are considered to have failed? Anything which straddles this fault-line - as the Brunel project does - can expect to be used to fuel the debate.

What has made the area of intelligence so bitterly contentious recently has been the re-opening of the controversy about intelligence and inheritance. Where once social class was the main focus for this battle, today it is race.

Earlier this summer, IQ determinism was taken to its logical conclusion by Dr James Tooley, of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford. Writing in the house journal of the free-market Institute for Economic Affairs, Dr Tooley called for the replacement of all exams by an IQ test at ten. Those with low IQ scores could be gently warned not to expect too much out of life. The brighter ones could then get on with it.

No wonder that many involved in the education system are so wary of the motives of those who espouse ability in the young. Yet others have problems reversing the thinking of decades and recognising that gifted children might have special needs. Is this not, they ask, just another example of how the middle classes justify a concentration of time and effort upon their own children?

The trouble is that, whatever the nature of the political debate, and whatever our prejudices, it does, indeed, look as though we are failing our brightest children. The literature is full of case studies of clever children who have been let down by the system. Under-occupied, bored and often bullied, many become alienated and disruptive.

And there are quite a lot of them. Sure, the prodigies, those weird kids who design cathedrals at one and compose symphonies at two, are very rare. But 2.5 per cent of all children, those who have an IQ of above 130, can be classified as "able", according to Koshy and Casey. Even the category of the "exceptionally able" - comprising those with an IQ of more than 150, accounts for one child in every 200. So the chances are that your local school contains at least a couple of exceptional kids. Nor is IQ the only way of judging exceptional ability. There are about six different tests used in this country, all based on a mixture of verbal and non-verbal reasoning exercises. At the simplest level tasks might include choosing substitute words, or fitting shapes into spaces. The Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, favours a theory of "multiple intelligences". It is the speed and accuracy with which a child can process information that defines exceptional ability.

So spotting the able child takes some skill, not just testing. What then marks them out? Casey says that in the very young child it is the ability to recognise the similarities in apparently dissimilar objects - to see the connections. "You can see it in the type of question that the child asks and the response to the answer. There is a very high level of curiosity, and the facial expression often shows real excitement in discovering the answers."

But do not late developers ruin the notion of discovering great ability early? No, replies Casey: if you look at famous late developers, like Einstein and Darwin, the truth was that neither schools nor parents had the wit to recognise their talents.

Once recognised, the children need to be helped. But how? Some would like to see the nation invest in special schools for the able. Under John Major, of course, such a plan would become yet another late Tory wheeze - a cones hotline for British geniuses, funded by lottery money from those with IQs well below 130.

The Brunel pioneers would much rather see strategies designed to help the very bright child stay in the school where he or she is. With proper support for parent and teacher, they wish to devise "personally negotiated programmes" for the very able. These would involve some individual tutoring, some attendance at more advanced classes, and earlier examinations in some subjects. The child could be educated, without being sequestered away from his or her classmates - who might not be so bright, but who, crucially, share the same level of emotional development.

But are our schools flexible enough to cope with this? What is remarkable about the education system in the last years of the 20th century is not how much it has changed, but how little. Schools still consist of children, divided into age groups, who spend up to seven years in the same institution. Only in the rarest cases can children move up and down between years, and even then it is seen as aberrant. Why is it such an outlandish idea for children to sit in different classes for different lessons? Is it such a threat to the order of our system to allow a primary school child to attend lessons at a secondary school, if he or she is able? No, we will have to do better. In the bold, difficult world of the new century, there can be no such concept as "too forward".

The Prodigy Matthew Trout, aged 12, has an IQ of more than 160 and is classed by educational psychologists as a gifted child. He lives with his parents, Sandra and Adrian, in the village of Upholland, near Wigan

Matthew Trout races to his front door, shakes my right hand vigorously, and thrusts a freshly-painted toy soldier into my left. With his jeans and T-shirt and slightly messy hair, he looks like any 12 year old. But when he starts talking, long, complicat ed observations on his life and the workings of the universe spew forth. He is what educationalists class as "gifted", and what the tabloids would call a "boy genius". When only three, he taught himself to read; at four, he was computer literate; and, aged six, he would creep downstairs to watch the Open University on early m orning television. Around the same time, he mastered Einstein's Theory of Relativity, and a year later read The Lord of the Rings. Last year, he became the Open University's youngest-ever student. He scored 88 per cent in his first year maths paper. He has just got a B in A-level Physics, a result which disappoints him, "but I'm trying to be philosophical about it." He is a child so bright that, when experts tested him at the age of six with the respected Wechlers intelligence scales for children, they were unable to quantify the result, and estimated his IQ score at 160-plus: the average for a gifted child is 150. His parents - Sandra, a senior social worker, and Adrian, a probation officer, both of them graduates - recount stories of his early years with pride, slight bewilderment and constant interruptions by the "wunderkind".

"Statistically, we knew he was likely to be bright because he was the first child of slightly older parents," says Adrian, "and more mature parents tend to be more relaxed and give the child more attention."

The couple had been married for eight years and trying for a baby for four, before Sandra conceived. She was 33, Adrian 35. "There was a high risk of miscarriage," she explains. "I was confined to six months' bed rest. Matthew was born premature and spent the first few days of his life in an incubator."

"I can't remember that far back," her son interrupts. "My first memory is when I was three and that cow trod on my foot when I was trying to milk it ..."

"Matthew, I am trying to tell the story." His mother shuts him up, quite sharply; it is the first of many such exchanges.

"He hardly slept in the first few years. I used to be jealous of those mums who got all their housework done while baby was having an afternoon nap; I was lucky if I got the nappies washed. But I didn't really think he was that di fferent. Giftedness was the last thing I was looking for."

She now thinks that there were always clues to his high intellect. "He began to talk from an early age, using half-words, so I was 'Mu' and Adrian was 'Da'. But his sentences were incredibly complex for a tiny tot. When I took him to mothers and toddlers, the other mothers accused me of pushing my child to make him clever because he could read. But I'd never taught him to read; all I'd done was expose him to picture books. He must have discovered there was a system, linked the words to the pictures, and worked it out for himself."

At primary school, the head teacher gave him extra maths, and he developed his own system of joined-up writing before the other children had finished learning the alphabet. When he came home, he would plough through encyclopaedias.

"When he was six," Sandra continues, "he was working on a project about rainbows. We gave him a reference book to read about them. When I came back to check, he was engrossed in a section explaining Einstein's Theory of Relativity; then we realised he ne eded special attention and help. We were worried: if he was that different, we felt there was a strong chance that he could become a very unhappy little boy, with the possibility of behavioural problems."

Indeed, the other children, Matthew says, had already noticed that he was different. "I wouldn't say I was bullied, because my primary school [Holland Moor County Primary School] head was very tough on bullies and no one would have dared, but I was teased a lot. The other children would call me Fish finger because of my name, and imitated my voice because I have a posh accent. But unimaginative insults are easy to shrug off, and I think I coped. The majority of my peers were neutral. I think, as I have grown older, the supportive ones have grown in number.

"I do have a high sense of morality, and at times, if a teacher thought someone had done something wrong when they hadn't, I would correct them. Even from nursery school. Some teachers didn't like that."

Sandra: "It was difficult for some adults and teachers to accept him. Here was this boy, practically a baby, with an extensive vocabulary and highly-developed sense of right and wrong. It's no wonder they thought him precocious and cheeky.''

Matthew's primary-school head teacher called in a reading adviser and educational psychologist, who conducted tests and said Matthew was the most intelligent child he had ever come across. The only option, he insisted, was a specialist boarding school.

The Trouts had other ideas. "We liked Matthew; we didn't want to send him away," says Sandra. "We wanted him educated in the state system, living at home, but there were no models for us to follow. We had to design our own."

The child's development has since been planned with the precision of a military campaign. They persuaded nearby Glenburn Secondary School to take him, at seven, for science and, later, French and German; two 15-year-old girls there became his minders. Then, through an education officer at Lancashire County Council, the Trouts found Matthew a mentor, a mathematician named Brian Wilby, who had taken early retirement from the local college of further education.

Wilby has become Matthew's personal coach: he attends some lessons with him, and also has regular meetings with his parents and the school, which is now Ormskirk Cross Hall High School, in south Lancashire.

Matthew is with his peer group, but joins older age groups for different classes. His exams are carefully staggered. The Open University degree will be completed in autumn 1998. He is scheduled to take French GCSE this year and Computing A/S level next s ummer, followed by Chemistry A-level and French and German A/S levels the following year. He will sit English Language, Literature and History GCSEs in three years' time.

"We didn't want him to go away to university," adds Adrian. "There's no way an 11-year-old is going to gain socially from university. We just didn't see how it could be healthy. He just goes one day a week to Liverpool for a maths tutorial."

"Actually, I don't want to go away to university anyway," Matthew insists, moving from his chair and snuggling up to his mum. "The thought of staying at home doing another BSc or BA, then a Masters, all with the Open University, and living at home, is really appealing."

His mother hugs him. "I think that with my brightness, there is a possibility for me to be very nice or very horrid. I think, because of my parents' nurturing, I've turned out nice, really. My parents say that the worst thing about me is my attitude; that's the thing I get told off most for. They say I always think I'm right and argue the toss too much.

"I don't think they spoil me; they are quite strict. I think, on the whole, I get along with my peers: I try to join in with things. I don't like football - I'm always last to be picked for the team. I like things where it's me against someone else, rather than me in a team with a lot of others where I get the blame when things go wrong. I prefer cricket because that's a set of individual efforts welded into one.

"Most of my teachers have been wonderful. One or two were unkind. One science teacher, when I was young, said he couldn't teach me because I knew more than him, and another woman teacher was just spiteful. I found that really upsetting at the time. If they are a bad teacher, I just don't co-operate as much, or I'm not quite as friendly or polite as usual. The bad teachers I've had have tended to resign or retire once I've left the class: I'm not saying there was a connection, but maybe there was.''

Listening to him chunter on, it's easy to forget he's a child. Every so often, however, childish exuberance shines through the adult-like veneer. Upstairs in his bedroom, before he demonstrates the two computers and his complex, self-designed programs, or shows you his Open University course books, he lunges for a battered old teddy on the bed. "Meet Fluff," he says. "He's been with me ages. I don't cuddle him at night, but I do like to have him on my pillow - just to know he's there."

The Family John and Liz Gardiner, in Harrogate, have three above-average children. Susan, 20, is a straight-As student who is studying medicine at Aberdeen; she has been assessed as having "a superior intellect". Alan, 14, is a talented percussionist; and Stuart, 1 8, with an IQ ranking of 142, is officially classed as gifted. Liz is a counsellor for the National Association of Gifted Children

John and Liz Gardiner seem a nice, middle-aged, middle-class couple: social class Bs who ought to be enjoying holidays abroad and shopping at M&S. Instead, they are thousands of pounds in debt, with a second mortgage which will take them at least another decade to pay off. Their small, three-bedroomed house on a Seventies estate just outside Harrogate, where they have lived for 16 years, is shabby; and the last holiday they had was a week in a British bed and breakfast. All their spare cash has been invested in educating their three children, and the strain is obvious.

"We didn't ask to have such clever or talented children," says Liz. "They were just born that way. And we have done our best to be good parents and give them what they need."

She explains that Susan, the eldest, was a high achiever (at seven, her IQ was 128), who had looked forward to school. But within a year she was bored and deliberately under-achieving in order to fit in.

Her parents decided that the state system was too inflexible. Stuart, 20 months younger, has been a bigger problem: even as a baby, he never stopped screaming. "There were times", says Liz, "when I understood why women batter their babies."

He was three years ahead of his contemporaries. His IQ at seven was 142. He could tell the time aged two, do sums at three, and taught himself to read before he went to school.

"As he got older, it was easier. Susan kept him entertained, but even as toddlers they preferred books to playing games. I'd be out shopping and they'd have worked out the shopping bill before the man at the check-out could do it on his calculator. Outside the school gates, when other mothers discussed their children's achievements, I kept quiet. Mine were so far ahead it felt like boasting.

"I knew my children were different, but the state schools were too rigid. When I asked for extra maths for Stuart, they said, 'Don't be foolish: he's too young for that.'

" Stuart went from being a happy four-year-old to a depressed, introverted five-year-old. "John and I were very worried. The other children might ride their bikes or play rough and tumble games. Stuart was more likely to be in a corner, learning his 17 times table. When he was six, he asked me: 'why am I different?' I said, 'Because God has given you talents he knows you will one day use.' If I had denied he was different, he would have been even more confused."

As Stuart's behaviour degenerated and he began to wet his pants at home and at school, the couple went for advice to the assistant director of education at the council. They were told not to worry, that, if he was clever, he would learn for himself.

"I came close to punching that man," says John, a quietly spoken, slim man. In 1981, the couple contacted the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC). It was a turning-point for them.

"Through contact with other parents in NAGC," says Liz, "we learned about the mistakes people make. Parents who are too pushy, for instance, seem only to make their kids more unhappy."

Stuart went first to a prep school in Yorkshire, then to a boarding school in Cumbria, where, without benefit of fast-track teaching, he has just got all As in Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry and General Studies, and has passed his Cambridge Steps entrance.

But his behaviour has sometimes been hard on the whole family. "We didn't spoil Stuart, but he always wanted his own way," Liz explains. "Holidays were arranged around him because, if he wasn't happy, he made the rest of the family miserable . If you travelled too far, he would start an argument. He was aggressive and always wanted to win."

Alan, a boarder at Chethams School of Music in Manchester (cost: pounds 200 per month), admits that he disliked Stuart when they were growing up. "Perhaps it was because he was brilliant. When we played Lego, he always made the best contraption."

"It's because he put you down," Liz interrupts. "He was always criticising you and saying you were stupid," she says, sadly.

John points out the incredible self-assertiveness many gifted children share. "There's something like Margaret Thatcher about them: they always think they're right. And facts matter to them more than people."

As she surveys her dining room, stuffed with filing cabinets containing folders charting her children's achievements, Liz feels bitter that she has been let down by the state system. "We could have had an easier life. We've made sacrifices. I'm bitter that we have had to spend years asking private schools to take our children, bitter that we didn't get any help from the heads at the local state schools, and that we've had to pay so much because the state let us down and gave us no expert ad vice or emotional support. State schools do not encourage gifted children. They want every child to be equal. In reality, that just cannot be the case."

At 6pm, Stuart comes home from his job at a burger bar. He turns out to be friendly but shy. Eventually opening up, he admits he sometimes feels guilty having caused his parents such difficulties, "but not too guilty. It's all for the good. They wanted us to have the best chances. They wouldn't have done it if they hadn't wanted to."

"Being gifted, people are bound to think you're weird; perhaps they always will," he says. "But I'm looking forward to going to Cambridge because there will be people there who are brighter than me. That will be a shock, but a challenge, too."

The Misfit

Richard Mankievicz, now 31, of south London, was officially assessed with an IQ of 150 when he was 11. He went on to Oxford to study physics, but failed his degree, and has since drifted in and out of work, and is often unemployed

"My mother is Italian and my father Polish. I was bilingual from an early age, and also really good at maths. Gifted children like maths because it's abstract, like a new little language of symbols.

"I always finished ahead of the rest of the class - I would ask the teacher, 'What shall I do now?' She'd say, 'Play with some toys'. I'd be so disappointed because I could do that at home.

"I had lots of fights at primary school, and I was very disruptive in class. If I'd finished my work, I'd hassle the other children. Looking back, I must have been desperate to communicate, to find a child who was on the same level as me.

"Being a clever little dick, you get bullied, but I was a big boy and, if the other children teased me, I clouted them. It was frustration; just lashing out.

"As I got older and went through the school system, the more bored and lonely I became. I was disassociated and disembodied from what was going on around me. I thought my teachers were thick arseholes. I learned on my own, from advanced textbooks and enc yclopaedias. I watched Open University from the age of ten. I just wasn't interested in ordinary, childish things, such as cartoons. I didn't have any friends.

"When I was 11, my parents found out about the National Association for Gifted Children. I think it provides a support network for parents, which is good, but what is really needed is proper support for the children. Gifted children should have special schools where they can develop together at a faster pace, have the stimulus of each other, somewhere where they can learn without being freaks. Their talents should be nurtured; otherwise, it's a waste of a precious resource.

"My parents sent me to a comprehensive in Clapham. I went out of my way to make the teachers look stupid, asking them questions which I knew they couldn't know the answers to. They were all so stupid. Then, when I was 14, my parents sent me to a private school. There were a few good teachers there. They respected academic ability rather than putting it down. They let me take my Italian O-level early. On the whole, I was still a loner, socially, but I did become friendly with some of the other students.

"At 18, Oxford offered me a place to do physics for just two Es - I didn't bother to get good A-level grades after that. To me, it was learning the subject that was important and interesting, not getting straight As. When I got to St Catherine's College, I decided I didn't want to do physics any more, I wanted to change to physics and philosophy. There must have been some internal politics going on because they wouldn't let me, and I got really frustrated with the regime. That first year was one of chaos. I was taking a lot of drugs; everyone was. You name it, we did it. It was a mini-Sixties revival. We were taking LSD and going to Stonehenge. We were scientists. We knew how things worked. We knew what vitamins to take, so there were no major catastrophes. The drugs were a diversion from the course, which I was so unhappy with.

"In a sense, when I went to university, I got caught up in the social aspect of life there. There were people I could talk to on the same intellectual level. It was interesting and experimental. At the end of the second year, I took a year out to clear my head. It didn't help.

"I went back for my third year and failed my finals. That was 1986. It was so humiliating. My parents were upset. I didn't know what to do with my life. I truly had become a theoretical physicist, in the worst possible sense. I was very depressed and spent a lot of time locked in my room, although I was never certifiable.

"I tried all kinds of jobs: commodity broking, sales, working in a gardening centre, translating, clerical work, working in a post office, all sorts of crappy menial work. I kept leaving after three or six months. I get bored so easily. I have never had any ambition to make money, just to be interested and challenged. I even tried a time in a Zen monastery.

"Now things seem to have come full circle for me. Last year, if anyone had asked me, I would have said I was disappointed in how my life had turned out. But I started an Open University degree, which should be finished this time next year. Then I want to do a PhD on the history of maths. I see my future now in academia.

"I'll never be a team player. It's important to me that my friends are intellectually stimulating. I cannot understand people who like football and watch soap operas. I mean, who cares about fictional characters' lives?

"In my spare time, I'm working with the NAGC. I believe gifted children need to be brought together and that adults who were gifted children should help formulate policy. They have lived through it so they are in a good position to help the gifted childr en of the future."

Other child prodigies: where they are they Ruth Lawrence coached by her mentor and constant companion, her father Harry Lawrence, Ruth passed her Maths O-level at nine, and collected a first-class honours degree from Oxford aged 13. Now 24, still chaperoned by Harry, she is working as a mathematical researcher at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques at Bures- sur-Yvette, 20 miles south of Paris.

Ganesh Sittampalam five years ago, aged 11, he was dubbed "the cleverest child since the Middle Ages" after enrolling for a maths degree at Surrey University. He got his degree after attending lectures for one day a week. He is still at school, and has just taken seven GCSEs.

In 1962, Hilary Cureton, aged eight, was a television star known as "Little Miss Highbrow". Now, a mother of five, she lives in Shropshire, and helps her husband run a petrol station. Of her days as a child prodigy, when she could recite Tennyson and Shakespeare, she says: "I have no regrets, and I never read Shakespeare now. I'm happy."

At three, Jonathan Cocking was a wunderkind speaking Shakespeare and proudly displaying his knowledge of London buses. Now 48, he says his gifts made him lazy. He has been reported selling car number plates. His teenage daughter is a Mensa member.

Marcello Carlin hit the headlines as a five-year-old prodigy who devoured Roman history. Now he is a health service administrator.

Nick Hawksworth had an IQ of 170 at the age of 11. As an adult, he complained he had been to more than 40 job interviews. He was last heard of in Preston, driving a van.

A 12-year-old boy who won a place at Oxford, was accused three years later of raping a 19-year-old woman student. The case against him was dropped. His family say their lives have been subsequently wrecked by press harassment.

A 15-year-old boy with an IQ of 130 is suing Bolton council, claiming their failure to cater for his special educational needs has caused him to turn to crime. He is currently in youth custody for taking a car without consent, and has more than 100 other convictions. (These last two cannot be named for legal reasons)

For more information, contact the National Association for Gifted Children 01604-792300 and the Support Society for Children of High Intelligence (CHI) PO Box 4222, London SE22 8XG (01386-881938)