Memorandum from Dr Philip Hensher, FRSL
This is a short memorandum, based on my personal
experience, relating to the Committee's inquiry into the education
of gifted children. I think the subject is less complex than might
initially be thought. On the whole, in my experience, people fulfil
their potential. Gifted adults were gifted as children, and there
is a strong danger that, in an inquiry of this nature, disproportionate
attention will be paid to the experiences of those who, for whatever
reasonsnot necessarily to do with their educationdo
not fulfil their childhood potential, and are only gifted children.
Secondly, in most cases, there is little point to tailoring education
to a gifted child. What an unusually clever child needs, in nine
cases out of 10, is benign neglect. An exceptional child doesn't
need cramming; he will benefit most from being given unlimited
access to a library, solitude and time to think. More than that,
the educational system cannot provide, and the committee should
not even consider the proposition that schools for geniuses will
result in more geniuses.
I am by profession a novelist and cultural critic.
As a child, I was always thought of as more than unusually intelligent,
and performed the usual prodigious tricks of intelligence; I could
read fluently at three, could identify the orders of architecture
at five, could distinguish between a Mozart sonata allegro and
one by Haydn at seven, and so on. None of this is interesting
in itself, or particularly remarkable in the great scheme of things.
The point I want to make is that I would have been a prime target
for selection for a school for gifted children, and I am extremely
glad I avoided the fate. I think I have fulfilled, or am fulfilling
my potential, and am strongly of the opinion that I would not
have done if my education had not been an ordinary one.
I went to a state school, Tapton Comprehensive
School in Sheffield between 1977 and 1983. It was certainly an
excellent school, and the education I had there was what every
gifted child ought to have. First, most of the teachers I had
made an effort to talk to me. Secondly, I was not crammed with
information, or treated as somebody who could, if he chose, take
15 "O" levels. My qualifications are no better than
hundreds of people. The sense I always had was that so long as
I did what I was interested in, and passed a respectable number
of "O" and "A" levels, I could do whatever
I wanted. In other words, I wasn't "stretched"; I stretched
myself, and in the directions I wanted to go in.
What would have happened to me if I had had
special treatment? No-one, when I was seven, or eight, could have
discerned that I was going to end up writing novels. I would have
been stretched in some of the wrong directions. Some of the things
I can do which were never more than party tricksa quickness
with mental arithmetic, for instancewould, to an external
judge, seem like the basis for later achievement.
I am grateful for my education; I am grateful
to my parents, who steadily refused all proposals to put me in
a higher year, and would have regarded the idea of special schools
with revulsion; I am pleased that nobody had the faintest idea
what I was going to do, and didn't try to push me in any particular
direction, so that I found my own way, in my own time, to what
I now do. Of course it was haphazard, but all inquiring intellectual
development is haphazard. And of course it was a solitary endeavour,
because a human being has to come on his own to understanding
and knowledge. It was solitary at Cambridge; and it has gone on
being so ever since. And no teacher, no special school, no change
of educational policy, can ever make it less so.
The committee has probably heard a great number
of stories from people and of people who think they were neglected
by ordinary systems of education. It should regard these views
with the utmost scepticism. They are always excuses for not amounting
to very much in later life. Intelligence is not a fragile quality
which is going to wither in a child if it isn't given constant
attention. Nor is it lost if it hasn't produced anything much
by the time a child leaves school. It sometimes takes its time,
and nothing will speed up the processes of an exceptional mind.
I think a child is much more likely to give up if he is constantly
pushed, or faced with unhelpful competition. The best thing that
can be done for a child who was in my position is to live within
five miles of a really good library, and to let his be on his
own whenever he wants to be. Putting a group of gifted children
together is asking for trouble.
The committee will recall, that in that great
masterpiece, Back In the Jug Agane, Molesworth returns
from the holidays to St Custards to be asked what he has read
"What hav you read, molesworth?"
Tremble tremble moan drone, I hav read nothing
but red the redskin and Guide to the Pools. I hav also sat with
my mouth open looking at lassie, wonder horse ect on t.v. How
to escape? But I hav made a plan.
"Proust, sir. A grate fr.writer. The book
in question was swan's way."
"Gorblimey. Wot did you think if it, eh?"
"The style was exquisite, and the characterisation
superb. The long evocative passages"
"Silence!" thunder Grimes. "There
is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture
the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers."
I expect that the committee has heard plenty
of similar anecdotes of neglect and teacherly incredulity by now.
I'd just like them to remember that Molesworth, despite everything,
one day still got round to reading Du cote de chez Swann,
and nothing Grimes could say would have prevented it.
Dr Philip Hensher