'I knew I was clever, but even I was astounded by how clever I was'

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Peter Williams (Above) Has An Iq Of . But Labelling Pupils As Gifted Can Cause Problems, Says Madeleine Brettingham

Peter williams is 10. He hasn't been to school for more than three years.

Last year, his dad was served with a parenting order demanding his son return to the local primary in Alton, Hampshire. But Peter is not your conventional school drop-out. He has an IQ of 170, putting him in the top 0.001 per cent of the population.

A Channel 4 documentary, Child Genius, last night showed that far from the kiss-curled prodigies of popular imagination, gifted children come in all shapes and sizes. There's Dante, a combative and troubled soul who feels isolated by his intelligence. Aimee, who has a rigorous regime of maths and violin lessons. And, of course, Peter, a funny lad who has been pulled out of lessons by his father.

"All they were interested in was the average," said Peter senior. "They didn't give him any real help. He would get bored. We could tell he wasn't fulfilling his potential." So Mr Williams decided to educate Peter at home.

"Someone said these children are like racehorses," he said. "You've got to look after them very carefully to bring the best out of them."

Such sentiments are common among parents of gifted children. Adam Napier-Smith, 8, with a precocious maths talent, also appears in the Channel 4 series, which began last night. He passed through five different primaries before his mother settled on a private school in Hampshire.

The notion that mixed-ability education has failed bright children has been given credence by the Government, which felt it necessary to establish a gifted and talented programme.

But are schools really the problem? Adam's mother Emma has mixed feelings.

"I spent a long time thinking the school was the issue," she said. "We tried to home educate him, but it just turned into a battle of wills."

Joan Freeman, a visiting professor at Middlesex university, has just completed the longest-ever comparative survey of gifted children, titled Gifted Lives: What they tell us about our own. Her findings are striking.

They suggest that most of the problems are actually a product of the label itself and parents' and teachers' reactions to it.

Professor Freeman tracked more than 60 children over 30 years. Crucially, she compared those labelled gifted with non-labelled but high-IQ children.

The gifted were far more likely to suffer emotional and social problems at school and in later life.

"Labelled children feel they must be seen to be gifted," she said. "If they lose that label, they lose their identity."

Giftedness is recognised as a special educational need. Studies suggest such pupils are more prone to depression, social difficulties, even ultra-sensitivity to sound and light. Professor Freeman is sceptical. "They are just children," she says. "Some will have behavioural problems, some won't."

But the labelling process does seem to have a profound effect on many children. Peter Williams' reaction to his own IQ test results is a case in point: "I knew I was clever, but even I was astounded by how clever I was."

He wants to be a chess world champion and reckons "the chances that I won't be are five in one million".

But what are the life chances really for high-ability children? Professor Freeman's findings are mixed. In their forties, her cohort included a successful architect, a caretaker, and a professional gambler. "Sometimes they go on to jobs that aren't the best, so that they can remain top of the class," she said. There is little conclusive evidence that identifying or fast-tracking gifted children produces long-term benefits.

On this basis, some academics criticise the gifted and talented programme, saying it targets too few children and is simply a sticking plaster on a flawed curriculum.

But the Centre for British Teachers education trust that has taken over Britain's gifted and talented scheme, emphasises that it is "not about creating little Mozarts", but about social justice.

"Some children just don't believe university is the place for them and we need to change that," said Dr Valsa Koshy, of Brunel university's Able Children's Education Centre.

Paul Norman, a gifted and talented co-ordinator at Billericay school in Essex said: "You need to approach it differently for each child. University can be motivating. But we don't put the pressure on. We don't publish a list of pupils who go to university or create individual plans.

"The last thing we want to do is create more stress."


The term gifted refers to all-round intelligence; talented means able in a particular subject.

The UK Gifted and Talented programme is aimed at the 10 per cent most able children.

Researchers use the label gifted to refer to a child with an IQ of over 130: that's one in 50 children.

Schools should not publish lists of gifted children or create individual learning plans that might put pressure on them, according to Essex GT co-ordinator Paul Norman. They should crack down hard on anti-boffin bullying, according to Chris Carrott, another GT teacher from Essex.

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