The right to be bright

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Gifted working-class children are being let down by the system, says educational psychologist Miraca Gross. Seonag MacKinnon reports

A three-year-old girl sits on the knee of her grandfather, with a copy of the Sunday Post opened at The Broons and Oor Wullie cartoons. It's a common scene in Scottish tenements just after the Second World War - except in this case the child is reading the speech bubbles to the adult, not vice versa.

This precocious talent was one of the first signs that associate professor Miraca Gross was among the 10-15 per cent of the infant population deemed gifted, a group that has ben the focus of her career, and a group she believes is unjustly served in Scotland today.

As someone with bona fide working-class credentials (she grew up with her extended family in a one-bedroom flat, where she slept with her mother in the kitchen recess), Dr Gross maintains that the current generation of gifted working-class children is not fully encouraged in state schools, sometimes not even identified. As a result, she says, they are frustrated, bored and underachieving.

She taught for more than 20 years before moving into research, and is "not a teacher basher". But she attacks what she claims is the prevailing view, encouraged by teacher training colleges, that gifted children are middle-class. Pupils at the secondary she attended, Boroughmuir High, in Edinburgh, which was selective then, came from a wide cross-section of society.

"Now people wouldn't look for a gifted child in a tenement in a poor area. Expectations are too low," she says.

Dr Gross had an inauspicious start in life, born in 1944 into a rocky wartime marriage. Her father walked out when she was two, leaving her mother, a secretary in the civil service, bitter but determined to show her daughter life could be better. Unusually for a child in this era, the young Miraca was brought up to believe her future need not be determined by gender, class or financial circumstance.

Her grandparents shared the family's tiny flat, so, with no brothers or sisters, she had the undivided attention of three adults for most of her pre-school years. Her reading skills were already developed by the time she started at Edinburgh's South Morningside primary in 1948, where she was inspired by her first teacher, Miss Kay. The five-year-old watched how Miss Kay developed reading in Primary 1, and marvelled at a job that involved passing on a skill from which so much pleasure could be derived.

Subsequent years in this school, containing pupils across a wide range of abilities, were less happy. "Like many schools, it paid some lip service to the education of bright children but directed teaching at the middle of the class. I was bored to tears," says Dr Gross.

She says that like many able children, she brought down the standard of her work, so her peers would not reject her. She also met growing hostility from her teacher in P5, 6 and 7. When she started writing poetry at the age of nine, he told her: "I know you don't write that stuff. Your mother writes it. "

After sitting an exam, she gained entrance to Boroughmuir, where being bright was not unusual. It was a revelation. For the first time she had to work and she had friends. She is unapologetic about the selection process. "It has become fashionable to deny the process because it has flaws. But for working-class children like me it was a godsend. I no longer had to hide my brightness," she says.

She points to the Australian system, in which children are selected on the basis of continuous assessment and tests in maths and English as well as of IQ. This last test is particularly good at picking up bright children from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, she says.

She performed well. At the age of 15, she sat the civil service entrance exam and gained the top mark in Scotland, but her mother allowed her to carry on at school, the first person in her family to do so. A major influence was English teacher Joe Casciani, who encouraged her to read outside the curriculum and shared her joy when, at the age of 17, she succeeded in having poetry and short stories published.

After school she chose teacher training at Moray Houserather than university, so she could bring a salary into the house a year earlier. Then came two years of teaching in Craigmuir primary, Pilton, a tough, under-privileged area of Edinburgh. Like any probationer, Miss Gross found the early period tough going, particularly with a class of 48. But she loved it and would have stayed longer if she had not married an Australian and emigrated to his country.

At that time children's IQs were routinely tested to pick up those who risked being left behind. Of her P5 class, nine children scored extremely low at below 70, but two were over 130, which put them in the top 2 per cent of the population. She realised to her shame and bewilderment that it was these two pupils whose needs she was not meeting.

Enlightenment as to the "relatively easy" task of teaching very able children began to dawn in Adelaide, where, in 1974, she was asked to take part in a programme working with gifted children. For the next 11 years she was increasingly involved with such children in the state schools of south Australia.

At 41, she left the classroom and went in search of the specialist training that was unavailable in Australia or the UK. The United States provided the opportunity to take a masters degree, then a PhD in educational psychology, specialising in the education of gifted children. She found out why some of the techniques she had tried worked and some hadn't.

Meanwhile, interest in the field was growing in Australia. Dr Gross took up the first full-time position in gifted education at Melbourne University. Then she was headhunted by the University of New South Wales, where she developed pioneering evening classes for teachers. Her department also devised two-day workshops to stimulate gifted children.

Dr Gross is dismissive of any suggestion of "hothousing", which she describes as forcefeeding knowledge to children of average ability. Able children adore the workshops, she says. They do not have to modify their vocabulary and can ask the questions they want.

The courses are designed to have a component of about 25 per cent which the children will find difficult. Research shows that children who have never been stretched to the point where they occasionally fail develop a fear of failure and do not acquire the essential ability to take risks.

Dr Gross is convinced this is one reason some state school pupils under-perform or drop out of university. It would also help explain the high-flying careers of many pupils from the private sector, which frequently shows more interest in stretching gifted children.

She questions the approach of teacher training colleges. "To make children as similar as possible has become the socio-politically correct thing to do - and it makes life easier for the teacher," she says. But equal achievement is an unrealistic goal, and striving for it inflicts an injustice on one group, she says.

Some teachers try to avoid emphasising the abilities of gifted children to prevent feelings of inferiority in the less able. But some neglect stems from the lack of training in identifying and teaching such children.

Dr Gross, whose hearing is severely impaired, contrasts the special training for teachers of deaf children with the absence of training to deal with the minority of children who are gifted.

Australia has now introduced measures to allow gifted children to work at their own pace, such as grouping them together, accelerating them a year (an opportunity given to Chancellor Gordon Brown when young) and giving them individual work if in a mixed-ability class.

When Dr Gross returns to the UK, she sees high-profile educationists including members of the Government. Off duty she stays in a friend's Georgian flat in Edinburgh's New Town, tours, visits old Boroughmuir friends and plays computer bridge. She wonders how many able children living now in poorly heated Edinburgh tenement flats, attending state schools, will get the chances she has had, to reach a similar level of fulfilment.

Exceptionally Gifted Children by Dr Miraca Gross, Routledge Publishing, 1993

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