Too clever for school

It may be every parent's dream to have a very bright child, but the reality can be more like a nightmare. Hilary Wilce explains how schools are failing our cleverest pupils
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The Independent Online

Jan Hanson was an early walker and talker. At six he was asking how light works and deducing that sound must also work in waves. He liked to discuss chaos theory. Two years later - struggling to fit into school - he was writing a poem about suicide. His school life remained a rollercoaster of unsympathetic heads, oddball friends, boring lessons and feelings of being an outsider. He moved school often and never settled. Only now, aged 19 and halfway through a degree in theoretical physics, has he started to find his feet.

Jan Hanson was an early walker and talker. At six he was asking how light works and deducing that sound must also work in waves. He liked to discuss chaos theory. Two years later - struggling to fit into school - he was writing a poem about suicide. His school life remained a rollercoaster of unsympathetic heads, oddball friends, boring lessons and feelings of being an outsider. He moved school often and never settled. Only now, aged 19 and halfway through a degree in theoretical physics, has he started to find his feet.

His brother, 13-year-old Stijn, is faring even worse. He was accelerated three years ahead of his age group at his Berkshire prep school, but ran into serious social problems, was excluded, attended a pupil-referral unit, and is now being taught at home.

Both boys belong to the top half per cent of the ability range - the pupils we used to call child prodigies and geniuses. "But I wouldn't consider this giftedness a blessing," says their mother, Leen Hanson, bleakly. "No, not at all."

That is because super-bright children are not catered for in schools. Many find it impossible to survive there, and the parents who then have to struggle to tutor them at home grow increasingly angry that so little is being done for them. "The attitude at the moment is that you either fit in or go," says Clare Lorenz, the chairman of the support society, Children of High Intelligence (CHI). "It isn't how things should be."

Today, it is broadly accepted that "gifted and talented" children need help to stretch their brains and extend their interests, in the same way that special-needs pupils need their own programmes. But, faced with a child who is not just clever, but who can do university-level work at nine, schools throw up their hands. Often they find it hard to accept that a child can really as bright as they are, and decide that the parents must be pushing him or her.

"But it is not us pushing the children, it is them pushing us," says Hanson. "Stijn would love to be in school. The ideal would be that he was kept with his own age group for non-academic subjects, and challenged in academic ones according to his abilities." But she isn't hopeful that this can happen soon. Hanson has had long experience of schools and local education authorities turning their backs on children like hers.

Very bright children usually show up early, but CHI knows of no primary head who has been supportive to its members, and the newly-established National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth so far only works with secondary-age children. The Government has promised guidance on how to approach giftedness at primary level, but parents of these exceptional children are not holding their breath.

"We hear a good deal about personalised learning to fit the individual and so on," says Lorenz. "But why then are exceptionally gifted and talented pupils so often poorly dealt with?"

Anita Cobb feels that such children often prompt feelings of resentment and spite among both children and teachers. Her son Dylan, now 12, who was doing long division at five, already has a GCSE in IT and is a gifted musician and poet, was bullied at primary school and was then made so miserable at a specialist boarding school that he had to leave. The moves have cost the family thousands, and so shredded their emotions that she weeps as she recounts Dylan's history. "I've got no education, so I'm not force-feeding him. I haven't a clue where he gets it from. I feel devastated by what's happened. We all do. I just want my life back."

Now Dylan learns at home, in Croydon, teaching himself website design and working with a home tutor on university-level work. But his mother says his confidence has dropped, and, like many children in this situation, he shows signs of wanting to mask his abilities. The only light has been meetings with other super-bright children through CHI, "where they get on instantly, even though they don't know each other. It's very odd."

Frances Jones (not her real name), who lives in West Sussex, has also had difficulties. When her son, now nine, came along and was counting to 10 before he was one, she didn't realise this was unusual. But in school he failed to settle. His parents asked for him to be given something more stimulating to do, but the school said he wasn't exceptionally bright, even though an educational psychologist's report showed differently. His mother believes this was because dyslexia was masking his abilities. "You only had to talk to him to see how deeply he thought about things. But the attitude was always: 'Pipe down, we deal with hundreds and hundreds of children, we know your son better than you do. We see him all day.'"

Now he won't go to school, and is taught at home, where he is doing science at GCSE level and will move on to Open University courses. "Although after that, I don't know. I'm a physicist but he goes beyond even me in physics. He's always wittering on about string theory." His six-year-old sister is also now home-educated - she has never started school.

Lorenz wants schools to be being willing to let the brightest children go at their own speed, even if this means arranging for primary-age children to take classes at secondary school, or secondary-age ones to work on university modules. "Forget the age-lock and actually apply personalised learning. There's supposed to be a 'gifted and talented' strategy, but who's ambitious enough to make it happen for these children? Who is actually training the heads and the teachers and the governors?"

Yet Deborah Eyre, the director of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth (NAGTY), points out that many super-bright children do settle in school and have their needs catered for. "It's just that we don't hear about them. When you're looking at these kind of problems, you are always looking at a self-selecting population.

"However it's well-known that precociously gifted young children are difficult to manage in the classroom context. There is a real need to respond to their needs. Accelerating them is one way forward. Carefully planned acceleration can work very well, but knee-jerk acceleration rarely does. You also have to make sure you take account of issues of social maturity, continuity and progression."

Secondary-age children can benefit from NAGTY's day lectures, online resources and summer schools, she says. "Our policy is to link experts to children, so these would be people well able to cope with their level of questioning." And there are plans for the academy to develop primary resources, although that will depend on more money becoming available.

A further complication for super-bright children is that their giftedness can often be coupled with conditions such as dyslexia or Asperger's syndrome, which leave schools even more flummoxed. Teachers are often challenged and unsettled by such children, parents get angry that their children's needs are not acknowledged, and situations quickly grow emotional and entrenched.

But schools must learn to listen more to the children, and to their parents, insists Lorenz. "Parents know when their children are exceptional. They know when they are not like other children. They can see, for example, that they are more interested in the views of other adults than of children. And there are many thousands of children like this. Something has to be done."

A few institutions, like Bridgemary School, in Gosport, Hampshire, are planning to axe age-groups and let students go at their own pace, but most still believe that children should fit schools, not schools children. This leaves parents like Jones forced into being home-educators against their will. And it leaves them furious. "I didn't plan this," she says. "I planned to go back to work. I don't think I should pay tax, I think someone should be paying me to teach my child! But what we mostly want is some recognition that there are children like this, that there are children who can go higher than the test ceilings, that there is a whole gifted spectrum." If that happened, she says, it would change everything.

How to spot a super-bright child

Exceptional children vary in what they are good at, and many quick and clever children are not prodigies. But he or she may well:

* Walk early, talk early and be restless and inquisitive

* Ask endless questions which take you out of your depth; have good powers of logical reasoning; quickly grasp new ideas

* Be an avid reader

* Enjoy solving problems on their own

* Have good concentration, an unusual imagination, a wide vocabulary and a good memory for facts

* Be able to manipulate numbers much better than his or her peers; be a wizard on the computer

* Be a perfectionist; have an unusual sense of humour; be a loner; be poorly co-ordinated; have very strong feelings and opinions

* Prefer adult company

* Get quickly bored doing the same thing

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