Shift needed on bright-wing politics

September 28, 2001

Gifted children are not a homogeneous group. Consequently, there is a variety of definitions of "giftedness".

A review of international research I conducted for schools inspection agency Ofsted shows that high test scores are not a reliable indicator of adult careers, except for teachers and academics. And using precocity to identify the gifted is probably responsible for any apparent "burn out", usually due to the others catching up.

Drive and energy allied with material provision can be more predictive of life success than a high IQ. Without a cello, tuition and a family to back him, Yo Yo Ma could not have become a great cellist, whatever his talent. But would other children with the same provision also turn out to be virtuosi?

Research in controlled conditions shows that gifted children differ in the level of expertise they can reach, while motivation and practice make a vast difference to results. So, of course, do cultural and family attitudes, which may also mean that children who think in different ways from teachers and test makers are less likely to be seen as gifted, as may be unconfident children who prefer to hide their gifts.

I began studying gifted children in 1974. A major aim was to find out why some were seen as gifted while others - of identical ability - were not. The study, which was updated this year, was of 70 target children (aged 5 to 14) taken from those presented to the National Association for Gifted Children by their parents without tests. Each was matched with two classmates - one identical in intelligence and the other taken at random. The study was unique because of its deep, counselling-style interviews with all 210 children in their homes, as well as with their families and teachers.

Parents who had volunteered their children as gifted were more likely to describe them as "difficult" and having poor sleep patterns, poor coordination and asthma. They also made more complaints about school, notably about their children's boredom there. Teachers agreed with their assessment.

However, when I examined all the children solely in respect of their IQs (97 to 170), there was no significant relationship with their social-adjustment scores. The target children's problems appeared to be due to their life circumstances, but when a bright child was unhappy it was often the gifts that got the blame.

Without the depth of this study, I would have missed vital information. For example, ten-year-old Steven was a gifted child from a financially poor home. Thanks to his headmaster, he won a scholarship to a prestigious school. By the ten-year follow-up, he had left at 16 with a handful of A grades at A level, but accepted what he saw as his social role and was digging ditches. But by the -year follow-up he had gained a first-class degree, was married and a manager of a large corporation. By 2001, all the sample had put behind them their homes and most of their childhood problems.

Alison, at 37, said that being labelled gifted was "the bane of my life" and wished she had never been given that tag. She felt that she could never live up to the expectations it brought and so had always felt a failure. Now, she said, her greatest successes were her children: they did not know about the label and loved her for herself.

This government is setting up more provision for gifted children, such as masterclasses and summer schools. But what the potentially gifted need are facilities and encouragement open to all, rather than restricted to a minority by teachers, tests or money.

In the same way that pupils who are talented and keen can opt for extra tuition in sport, they could opt for extra French or chemistry. The emphasis would then shift from elitist definitions of giftedness to a positive relationship between potential and provision.

Joan Freeman is visiting professor at the School of Lifelong Learning and Education, Middlesex University, an adviser on gifted education to the UK government and founding president of the European Council for High Ability. Her book Gifted Children Grown Up is published by David Fulton, price £15.00.

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