Mensa people do it at the back of the class

14th November 1997 at 00:00
It may come as a shock to learn that I, the new chairman of Mensa, failed my 11-plus. After all, isn't the function of such an exam to identify the brightest children, and ensure they get the best possible leg-up in life?

Well no, actually. Ask anyone working in the field of gifted children and they will tell you that it's no surprise at all to learn that 11-year-olds with high intelligence can be failed by the very system which is supposed to benefit them.

Apart from the fact that on the day I sat the exam, my writing arm was in plaster, metaphorically I also had one arm tied behind my back because of the nature of the exam.

For the 11-plus was a scholastic attainment test which, by definition, measures academic performance. By contrast, IQ tests measure potential, and it is not unusual to find someone performing well on such tests, despite having slipped through the academic net.

The common assumption is that children of high IQ are easily identified in school by their exam results. But the frequent reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. There is often a wide gulf between intellectual potential and academic performance. And, in the absence of regular IQ testing within schools, I believe that many of our brightest youngsters will go unrecognised since so few teachers are trained in such recognition.

Anyone who wants to seek out the really bright schoolchildren would do well to look towards the back of the classroom - towards those who are either making ink-bombs or working on other ways to disrupt the lesson. Such children are not only terminally bored, they are also afraid. They are afraid because they feel that they are alone, and by distracting others they distract themselves.

But that's only the plucky ones. Look again across the rows of faces and pick out those who are either lost in daydreams, or slumped in a dejected and withdrawn posture. These are the ones who have given up, the ones who are past caring.

On the other hand, gifted children who are anxious to please ambitious parents will sometimes force themselves into intellectual conformity, just for the affection and approval their performance secures. Yet, for those who believe that intellectual integrity is a priceless human virtue, this is unacceptable.

Naturally, some schools are better than others. But even within the good schools - especially those where, in pre-Blunkett days, academic ability could guarantee an assisted place - the criterion still tends to be scholastic attainment rather than potential as measured by IQ testing. The Catch 22 is that in order to enter one of the better schools a child has to be already performing well within the academic system. Which means the really gifted children are often not even put forward for such places.

That aside, I doubt that children of high IQ benefit much even from private education. Those who fall within the extreme upper range on IQ tests are, by nature, highly independent and individual in their thinking, resisting any pressure towards academic conformity.

One solution often favoured is that of moving the gifted child into a higher age stream. This is no solution at all. Obviously, some children advance their learning much more quickly than most. But the common assumption here seems to be that they are learning in a linear fashion and that, therefore, they need only be accelerated through a series of standard, academic exams in order to satisfy their need for intellectual challenge.

Real satisfaction in academic study comes from being allowed to pursue one's own interests. The talented mind is not nearly so interested in stockpiling reams of facts and data as it is in bringing together disparate concepts - or seeing the bigger picture. The powerful mind is creative, inspired and sees subtle patterns and relations in all that it encounters. Yet this ability is the priceless jewel that is often lost during the formal education process.

What gifted children need most is the company of their natural peers. That is not to say that they should be removed from contact with other children. But if groups of similarly talented children might be allowed regular opportunity to work creatively on projects that they have chosen, I have little doubt that their enthusiasm will flourish.

David Blunkett's plans to offer masterclasses for the brightest primary children might help, but there is a long way to go before the nation starts to make the best of its gifted children. Since my schooldays in the 1960s, little has changed.

Julie Baxter is chairman of Mensa. The opinions expressed are her own.

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