Joanna Briscoe: At the Sharp End

Parents of 'gifted children', get real. Give them a break. A freak is a freak is a freak
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The Independent Online

Yes, the news has just broken that the university is considering a lower age limit of 17 as a response to child protection laws. Whatever is one to do about one's perfectly-balanced junior genius? Let it accrue 11 A-levels and another chess championship while it loiters in the Bodleian waiting for the élite to catch up? Yinang Weng, 14, recently awarded a material sciences place at Corpus Christi, may be the last prodigy to grace the dreaming spires with tuckbox in the boot and new scooter for his scout to polish.

But why, precisely, do the middle classes desire their children to outperform their contemporaries? Surely overachievement is a disability like any other - there are special societies for these people, with physical disadvantages (squints, tics, speech impediments, anorexia), social disadvantages (shyness, inexposure to Heat magazine, prolonged virginity) and mental disadvantages (they have to read lots of boring books and are usually screechingly neurotic). Get real, parents of "gifted children". Give Simeon, Gideon and Aquila a break. A freak is a freak is a freak.

When a parent recently faux-shyly enquired via the letters page of the local newspaper about the suitability of nearby schools for her, ahem, gifted son, how we laughed. Among my five-year-old's contemporaries there are tots who've been sawing at rinky-dinky violins for a couple of years; there are bilingual Kicker-wearers who cry every time they're dropped off at their four-grand-a-term schools; and toddlers at nurseries - the sort that serve organic slop and cost £1,500 a month - who are taught French and yoga. Sacré bleu. Gott in Himmel. Let them have the afternoon off at a pikey soft-play centre stuffing their faces on something hormone-pumped and deep-fried. It would do them the world of good.


My parents' educational approach was to give us some felt tips and put us in a series of country primary schools specialising in illiteracy and harvesting. They didn't care how many violins we played or whether we could write a paper in the past historic. My siblings were then sent to a progressive school where you could fail to attend lessons and smoke at 13. They ended up with a couple of nicotine-stained art CSEs between them, perfectly satisfying both themselves and our parents.

I, on the other hand, read so much Noel Streatfield and Enid Blyton that I believed it incumbent upon me to spend every evening bettering myself at ballet (Ballet Shoes; Jinty magazine); ice skating (White Boots; Debbie magazine); piano (Gemma and Sisters); circus studies (The Circus of Adventure; Bunty), and advanced French (Claudine at St Claire's). Mostly, I gave up after a few stiff pirouettes and settled back into reading about girls called Posy and Petrova. However, I happily swotted and wrote children's novels after my homework, to my family's tolerant perplexity. I'm certain that if they'd forced a single session of material sciences, whatever that is, upon me, I'd have taken to Marlboros and snakebites instead.

As a parent I'm not quite so laissez-faire, but I truly don't want my titchy kids goofily wielding a viola da gamba and revving up for Corpus Christi. However, as Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting points out, middle-class parents tend to claim they don't mind how their children perform; they just want them to be happy, yet that's blatantly untrue. While I'm too pig-lazy to teach my children to ride bikes or do subtraction - far too much hassle when I could be sneak-reading the papers instead - I'll admit to a flare of bemused pride at my two-year-old's sudden and faintly prodigy-reeking need to paint every day before breakfast.

Yes, that's art before food, readers. Impressed, or what? But basically, we can't get it right. The only valid solution is to hassle them through their Sats with a Cornetto-on-a-stick, bribe them through their GCSEs, and then let them decide between a spliff and Bunsen burner. Plumbers make more money, anyway.

Joy of tweed

In this piss-awful, piddling-down, flooded-Glastonbury, empty-Oxford-Street summer, let's thank the bearded one we're allowed to be English English again. I can sit here wrapped in cardigans after a brief but worthy session of camping and look forward to an autumn of thicker cardigans and even worse weather, of Miss Marple tweed and splendid television. Even Madonna, who might have been expected to suffer an Ashtanga yoga accident, broke bones farting around on a hoss. On her English country estate with her silly squirey husband.

Remember when we had to pretend to be Japanese and drink from handle-less mugs, have bamboo plants and pebbles on the roof terrace, and favour square paper lampshades and black wood? Arses to all that. Let us insular, pudding-eating, thick-ankled mongrels accept our limitations with style. Let the tweed be badly cut. Let the rains fall. They will anyway.

'Sleep With Me', a novel by Joanna Briscoe, is published by Bloomsbury (£12.99)