Flair today, gone tomorrow
We used to have gifted children in this country. About 2 per cent of the school population, allegedly, which is approximately 180,000. They have gone, vanished. Thanks to political correctness and social niceties, we now have able children. They represent the same percentage as far as I know. We know more or less what drives these children. They have a very high IQ, they have at least one wondrous ability, they are often precocious, they learn rapidly, they are a pain in the neck. Now, it seems, the goalposts are changing. Two per cent is far too restricted an area of education to take seriously, when there are perhaps 40 per cent at the other end of the spectrum who have special educational needs. If we say that the top 20 per cent (in the IQ stakes), a nice round number, have specific abilities which need additional nurturing, then the impact is greater. What then shall we call this top brand? Talented, intelligent, pretty able, whiz-kids, hotshots?
We seem to be going full circle. I recall, in my grammar school, there were five streams of ability: A-E. There are no prizes for guessing into which stream the top 20 per cent were put. I have to say that, by and large, boys (yes, segregation) were genuinely sorted according to ability not social background; I mean, there were even backstreet boys in my class. There was also a fair amount of switching between classes, as need dictated. Yet even this did not address all the problems. Is the future to be a reinvention of the past?
It is easy to bracket the top fifth together. There are plenty of bright children and it is undoubtedly easier to teach them together. I can never understand teachers who insist mixed-ability teaching is the only option. It is an option, not the option. Bright children, however, are not necessarily gifted children.
A truly gifted child is not to be confused with a bright child. Sadly the public perception of gifted children is tarnished by media extremes. The case of Ruth Lawrence did much damage. A gifted child has special talents and abilities which can blossom with the right environment and tuition. And, of course, the public and the media forget to worry about giftedness in the young when it suits them.
Aled Jones did not seem to encounter much hostility. It is unquestionable that gifted children need appropriate teaching. But then it is equally unquestionable that all children need appropriate teaching. What they get, for the most part is, inevitably, a compromise, education watered down for the sake of expedience, practicality, cost, physical constraints. It is the accepted norm to teach toward the middle ability in the range, while ensuring extra help for the less able. It is the easy option, possibly the right one, but are we simply striving for overall mediocrity?
All too often, teachers argue that children must not see themselves failing. How we are expected to understand success if we cannot appreciate failure is beyond me. How can you appreciate Stilton if you have not tasted Edam? I know that confidence is essential to good learning, but not false confidence, not Pyrrhic confidence. It does seem that work has of necessity to be largely successful. Red ink is out. Too much of the work is well within the grasp of children who do not receive sufficient challenge.
All the talk of higher standards in education is simply tosh. Ask any university lecturer. Study any modern textbook. Look at the treadmill of workcards which stultify real thinking and creative progress. More and more children are receiving more and more qualifications but since the academic content has been so seriously devalued possession of paper qualifications does not guarantee life skills. All children have special educational needs. Why, in this country, do we have an obsession with helping only the weak?
A young violinist is not going to become Yehudi Menuhin by practising alone at home. An apprentice bricklayer is unlikely to acquire real skills by poring over DIY magazines. I like the word "flair" to describe innate skills. Yet we applaud when it suits, we deplore when the effects are too close to home. We are happy to thrust millions of pounds at simple lads-done-good but less happy when little Karen next door gets eight top bands at Standard grade. We have no qualms about Jimmy Savile driving a Rolls-Royce but mutter darkly when the vet buys a brand new Land Rover Discovery.
I actually believe that we all have at least one gift, one talent, one flair. Every single person has one area in which they can excel. It can be anything: typing, fruit-carving, cleaning, astrophysics, counselling; it does not have to be of earth-shattering importance. We can't all paint masterpieces, invent the telephone, pilot Concorde, but we can develop our skills given the right conditions. Such success is inextricably bound up with pride, pride in oneself and one's work.
You may find yourself a toilet cleaner, but you know that sparkling basins, graffiti-free walls and fragrant smells attract plaudits. You may be a factory worker, glued to a conveyor belt, but your dexterity will help guarantee quality, your job and possible promotion. In Germany, to be a train conductor is a highly respected job, involving linguistic ability, a talent for interpersonal skills, authority, knowledge determined by exams. How many gifted BR conductors have you met?
It is essential to provide the right education in the right way. It would be interesting to conduct a poll among young adults to investigate how valuable they think their schooling was, to discover what percentage of the time was wasted, how many subjects were boring, how many teachers were truly motivating, and so on. It may be easy to dismiss subjective appraisal, but pupil perceptions are the key to it all. Didn't interesting teachers and fascinating topics inspire you at school, but for how much of the time?
In the same way as advertising techniques work, schools must learn to target their teaching better. Broad blankets of bland knowledge can smother and repress. A national curriculum may be to blame, but it can be approached from different angles. To build a brick wall is boring; to build a pigsty, involving design and real beasts is a challenge, a conceivable delight and it involves the building of walls and corners and roofs, and much more.
To learn how to cook Welsh rarebit is dull; to whistle up a stir fry on a wood fire outside ensures a healthy interest. Yet targeting remains essential; the putative pig farmer may have an aversion to Oriental cuisine (mind you, with good teaching, she shouldn't). By providing the right range and depth of fascinating topics, not facile project work, all children's needs can be addressed. This avoids the need to categorise children.
It also works conversely, of course. If skills are not properly harnessed or appreciated, inertia and frustration creep in and stunt any development. This applies to jobs as much as in the classroom. If there is no scope, why make the effort? I remember working for a local council's parks department in my younger days. Skills existed from gardening to grave digging, but expectations (and pay) were so low as to deter full application of talent; learning on shovels became almost compulsory. If you don't expect, you don't get.
I become inordinately depressed when I see the scant attention accorded to the development of our country's potential. Life, it seems, moves too fast to garner proper skills, yet demand for life's benefits continues to soar. We aim to receive without respecting the principle of quality. We compromise and duck the issues. It is easier, after all. Decadence in extremis. Flair can decay.
Andrew Scott is director of Aganippe, an educational trust which offers specialist provision to help children who are underachieving.