Education: Double the trouble, twice as rewarding: Twins may have problems at school unless they are given special attention from an early age, writes Chris Arnot

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To the casual observer, Ciaran and his twin brother, Ruairi, aged six, are indistinguishable. But if you look very closely, according to Pat Preedy, headteacher at Knowle Infants' School, near Solihull, West Midlands, Ciaran has a small spot on the side of his nose.

Mrs Preedy has a keen interest in picking out the individuality that makes one twin different from another - and not just for purposes of identification: she is pioneering the only national survey in Britain into the special educational needs of children from multiple births.

Her interest was aroused in 1992 when there were nine pairs of twins in her nursery and reception classes. A lecture in the area by Rachel Hudson, of the Twins and Multiple Births Association (Tamba), provided an opportunity to find out more.

Tamba's educational guidelines, she discovered, were based on a long-term study in Australia by David Hay, who started researching the subject in 1978, backed by the Australian government.

Dr Hay found that twins were more likely to have problems with reading, telling the time and subtracting two-digit numbers. Identical twin boys were particularly at risk. He found that they continued to have problems at secondary school which could have been stemmed by intervention at a much earlier stage.

Having studied his work as part of research for her PhD on the subject, Mrs Preedy believes that intervention should start in the pre-school years, and therefore parents need to be made more aware.

With twins, she says, language development is frequently delayed. 'Mothers have to bond with two babies and have less time for interaction with them. Identical twin boys can be six to nine months behind in terms of speech and language development, which in turn leads to reading difficulties. They also tend to reinforce each other's mistakes.'

Mrs Preedy's study is based on interviews with parents and on teacher observation in the classroom. Her pilot project is looking at five pairs of twins in Solihull, but she plans to embark on a much wider national survey next year, inviting all local education authorities to take part.

In 1992 there were 8,314 pairs of twins born in Britain, as well as 202 sets of triplets, and nine sets of quads and above. Schools in Solihull take in marginally above the national average of 2.2 per cent. But Mrs Preedy found that 19 of its schools had numbers markedly higher. One has nine pairs of twins and three sets of triplets - 8 per cent of the school population.

Solihull is affluent, with a high proportion of career women likely to start families in their late thirties, when the possibility of having twins increases. In this age-group, those who cannot conceive are better able to afford fertility treatment, which can also increase the likelihood of twins. As such treatment becomes more widely available, a rise in the number of multiple births seems likely.

Mrs Preedy's study is designed to develop strategies to counter problems that could blight an entire school career. For parents in the early stages, this means taking 'double the trouble', she says, to meet the demands of two children clamouring for attention. 'It's a matter of teaching them to take turns, to work independently and not to rush.'

Each twin, she stresses, should be treated as an individual in school and at home. They should never be referred to as 'the twins' and one should never be allowed to speak for the other. Each should have separate letters to take home and each should have different appointments for parents' evenings. Comparisons should be made not with each other, but with children in their peer group.

A flexible policy should be adopted on the separation of twins within school: Mrs Preedy's advice is to treat each case on its merits. After consultation with parents, she has three pairs in her school taught in the same classroom, and three in different ones. 'Another pair started off separately and then asked to be together. One twin had the impression - falsely - that the other was performing better. When they were together he picked up confidence again. They don't always sit together, but you see him looking around to check the other is in the room.'

Although she has found Dr Hay's research invaluable, she emphasises that there are important differences between Britain and Australia, where children start school at six. It is time, she believes, that twins in this country received more consideration in the classroom. 'It's not a matter of giving them extra attention so much as ensuring that they have the same opportunities.'

(Photograph omitted)