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Gifted pupils deserve no better than the rest

Peter Marshall disputes a widely held, but uncontested theory that children with high IQs should receive special education

In 1991, Joan Freeman published the first study of the experience of growing up gifted (Gifted children growing up, Cassell), and argued that it contained crucial lessons for schools and policy-makers.

Having tried to replicate her findings, I have, however, come to very different conclusions about the educational needs of gifted children.

Joan Freeman reported that 76 per cent of gifted children are seen by their teachers as bright. The children tend to be aware of their high ability, she said, and are precocious in reading and writing. They have good memories and have high concentration levels, although 20 per cent consider themselves lazy.

Her report also suggests that most children identified as gifted by their parents come from unhappy homes. Such children are pressured to achieve and are often placed in classes with pupils significantly older than themselves.

Children who have been identified as gifted by their parents may gain higher exam marks than other gifted children, but they tend to be very sensitive, frustrated, lonely and miserable.

Her study claimed that school achievement among gifted children appears to be influenced by a host of interrelated situational, psychological, emotional and personality factors. The inference is that they should receive special education, and it is in getting government and schools to accept this that the challenge lies.

Her conclusions have gone uncontested until now because of a general reluctance among social scientists to devote effort to testing the work of others. Trail-blazing for new facts is more exciting and, perhaps, more appealing to funding bodies.

I have, however, tested Joan Freeman's findings with a national sample of gifted individuals (mean age: 38) that was three times the size of the one she used (453 compared with 140). Furthermore, the sample was far less biased than hers as it was drawn from the MENSA membership list.

Half of Joan Freeman's sample came from the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) list, which she admitted was highly biased towards children with emotional and social adjustment problems. The other half was selected from the same school classes as the NAGC children.

The methodology I used was also superior to Freeman's study. Each method has its own weaknesses, so I used three techniques: individual and group interviews and postal questionnaires (sample 419, randomly selected). Freeman's study, on the other hand, was dominated by the informal interview technique.

In addition, the statistical tests to which the data were put were more demanding, no finding being accepted without statistical significance.

My study found that the experience of gifted children is not significantly different from that of mainstream children.

There were people who had experienced relatively serious emotional problems, which on the surface appeared to be associated with their high IQ. Indeed, often both they and their parents claimed this was so, but when you probed deeper during interviews, it became clear that such difficulties had nothing to do with their giftedness.

One child had been sexually abused. Another became a transsexual. A third had had a restrictive upbringing in a Christian family that placed a high value on humility. In fact, I did not find a single case where childhood emotional problems were unquestionably caused by their intellect.

What the majority of interviewees told me repeatedly was that they were too busy enjoying being children, blending in, being one of the gang, to give much thought to how intelligent they were. Many felt they were smart but had not considered that their IQ was exceptional.

I, therefore, have no reason to suppose that the educational experiences of gifted children are significantly different from those of other children.

If gifted children seem to be OK at school, is there any justification for devoting funds to research and intervention in this cause?

Researchers use two main arguments and both are false. One is that gifted children have special problems in ordinary schooling and do not fulfil their potential. The other is that a country neglects gifted children at its peril, because they provide its competitive edge.

However, the American researcher, Rena Subotnik, and her associates, showed that giving gifted children special schooling does not produce eminent people; it merely produces recruits to the professions - and no outstanding performers among them.

That is not to say that there are no defensible arguments for publicly funded research on gifted children. Such children represent extreme cases and such cases are useful to science.

Studying children with levels of IQ in the top 2 per cent, for example, might help us understand more about intelligence and its relationship to school performance. This might reveal ways of helping the mainstream and low-IQ children who make up the majority of school pupils.

Their parents also provide the lion's share of funding through taxes. In my opinion, it would, therefore, be unethical and unjustifiable to make a priority of the education of gifted children if this would divert resources from mainstream pupils.

Dr Marshall carried out his study in the course of doctoral research at the Centre for Educational Guidance and Special Needs, School of Education, University of Manchester. He is now a member of the applied psychology research group of the University of London

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