Not identical at all

Twins may need help to grow up independent: parents and teachers must take care, says Chris Arnot

Chris Arnot
Wednesday 26 April 1995 23:02

They were identical twins. They had similar hair styles, wore similar clothes, carried similar bags and generally contrived to baffle any teacher trying to tell them apart. At exam time they were strictly separated, but it made no difference to their GCSE results: identical grades.

"That was a pretty exceptional case," says Rachel Hudson, a teacher herself and a secondary education consultant for the Twins and Multiple Births Association (Tamba). More typical, she feels, are her own 18-year-old twins, David and Matthew. "They're very different in many ways," she says.

At their primary school in Worcester, one class entry per year meant that they were taught together until they were 11. "We were under pressure to keep them together," Mrs Hudson recalls. "But at some time, young people have to confront being out on their own."

Luckily, they had a choice of secondary schools. David chose one where he knew nobody and he flourished there; meanwhile, Matthew floundered elsewhere, despite being in classrooms with friends from primary school. "Only then did we discover that David had been organising Matthew," says their mother. "Without David, he went to pieces. Eventually we moved Matthew to the school where I teach, and he settled down."

Mrs Hudson feels strongly that not enough schools are aware of how twins have special needs. That is amply borne out by Pat Preedy, headteacher at Knowle Infants' School, near Solihull, West Midlands, who is conducting the only national survey in Britain into the education of children from multiple births. Only three schools out of 2,400 in six education authorities have a policy on, for instance, whether or not to separate twins.

Many have single-form entries and a habit of seating children in alphabetical order, thus ensuring that twins share not only the same classroom, but often the same desk. Some twins benefit from each other's support. Others, however, improve their school performance when separated.

When Craig and Laura Swinburne arrived at Knowle Infants they had hardly been apart. "They needed to be together at first," says Mrs Preedy. "But we noticed that Craig was very reliant on Laura. After Christmas we moved him to another class, where his confidence has improved considerably."

She stresses that teachers need to recognise that each child is an individual. A flexible strategy is required, which should be reviewed at regular intervals.

Nationwide, Mrs Preedy detects a lack of awareness of the problem, despite evidence that the language development of children from multiple births is below average - a consequence of mothers having to bond with more than one baby and consequently having less time for interaction.

Identical twin boys can be between six and nine months behind their peers. If not carefully monitored, they tend to reinforce each other's mistakes.

The evidence is more than anecdotal. It has been confirmed by the Curriculum Evaluation and Management Centre at Newcastle University, which, at Mrs Preedy's request, has been monitoring the progess of twins in primary school.

"We found that they appear to be disadvantaged in language, which is affecting their early reading," said the deputy director, Peter Timms. "Teachers should be watching out for it." All the more so since the number of multiple births has been rising steadily during the Nineties.

As more women are choosing to have their babies later, the chance of them having more than one increases. Figures just released show that in 1993 there was a total of 8,459 multiples: 12.79 per thousand births.

Mrs Preedy first took an interest when nine pairs of twins appeared in her reception class in 1992. She has since researched the subject for a PhD and is now in demand as a public speaker. Next month she will be addressing the International Congress for Twin Studies in Virginia.

Her advice for teachers is: be aware of the pre-school experience of twins and be prepared to intervene, putting them in different classes if one appears to be too dependent on the other. "A little pain can bring a lot of gain."

Mrs Preedy recommends that teachers adopt a strategy for easy identification - distinguishing marks, different hairstyles - and encourage other children to refer to multiples by name.

"Don't call them 'the twins' or 'the triplets'; don't compare a child to his or her twin. Don't give them just one letter between them to take home, and don't discuss them with their parents as though they were one child.

"It's not a matter of giving them extra attention," she says, "as much as ensuring that they have the same opportunities."

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