Lack of care for the gifted is bad medicine

4th April 2003 at 01:00
By my daughter's bed in Eastbourne hospital, I sat down and read The TES coverage of the 14 to 19 learning reforms. She dozed a little while we waited for a doctor to take a look at her mouth, which was bloodied and torn after hitting a table in the school corridor.

And we waited. A nurse popped in while I was reading a piece by further and higher education minister Margaret Hodge, who says that she is looking forward to the future blurring of the distinctions between higher education and further education.

And we waited. The doctor came and tried the examination lamp. There was no bulb in it, so he borrowed a colleague's torch. We had arrived at 6pm and it was now almost nine. He looked exhausted. I began to think about my friend's son who has just been accepted to read medicine on a crop of resits, his top grade a single B.

It would have to be a general anaesthetic and an overnight stay on the children's ward. The doctor had one other patient with facial damage to look at.

We waited. At 10.30pm he came to see us again. The other patient had been kicked in the face by a horse. My seven-year-old, by now numb and passive with shock, would have to wait until the morning.

On the camp bed by her side, I thought about the bright young sixth-formers with three grade As in maths, physics and chemistry who went to read medicine when I was at school. What clever kids, what a great job.

To help me get to sleep, I read a bit more about foundation courses for the non-academic, the threat to small sixth-forms, and the need to give vocational and academic studies equal esteem. Apparently, Margaret Hodge reckons it is time to tackle university elitism.

At breakfast the tired doctor brought his daytime colleague to see us. He was chirpy, he was super with my daughter, but he was one man with a long list of pre-booked stitching jobs to do. We - a non-urgent emergency - would have to wait until he could squeeze us in.

A long and hungry morning later - my daughter had taken nothing but a glucose drink in 24 hours - he returned to let us know that there was still hope for 2.30pm. But that was providing he could "beg, borrow and plead for an anaesthetist".

The job done an hour later, he said he was sorry it had taken so long. But there just weren't enough doctors. At the time I said I understood and thanked him for making my daughter better.

But now I want to say that he is not the one who should be apologising - either to me, the woman whose Alzheimer's husband spent even longer than us in Aamp;E that night or the rest of us waiting to see a doctor in the NHS labyrinth.

It is those at the top of the education system who should be saying sorry.

Sorry for neglecting the brightest children.

Yes, we need plumbers with self-esteem, and logistics managers who know an inventory from a supply chain. We need to free the blue collars of the future from pointless academic chains.

But even more we need doctors, scientists, top engineers and linguists.

Even moral philosophers and great artists, musicians and writers. We need - oh, forbidden word - an elite.

And you don't get an elite by pushing 50 per cent of young people into higher education and charging the earth for it. And you don't get it by pretending that double-award science is as good as three separate sciences.

And you don't get it by letting schools drop languages at 14. And neither do you get it by giving primary school children certificates for everything from using a hanky to being polite to the school hamster but never for being academically successful.

Brightness in the young needs to be encouraged. But all too often we seem to be so worried about not damaging the feelings of the less bright that we have forgotten that.

We all know that the league tables lie: but one of their biggest untruths is that they let general national vocational qualifications and GCSEs look like the same thing. Yes, of course both of these things are valuable, but they are as different from each other as a nursery nurse is from a facial surgeon.

Blurring boundaries is not educational good practice. Perhaps Ms Hodge would like to turn her attention to the academic elite next. Certainly, she could find a focus group in any hospital waiting room.

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