Sacrifice yourself to foster teenage genius

31st January 2003 at 00:00
We are a densely populated island with rapidly diminishing natural resources and relatively high wages. To sustain our affluence we will need to nurture innovative entrepreneurs who can create new products or even whole industries that the world will buy from us. What role does the education system play in bringing this about?

The answer is that far from nurturing originality and imagination, schooling is mostly its enemy. Two-thirds of top entrepreneurs, such as Richard Branson, did not finish secondary education, let along go to university. By contrast, career managers who work their way up corporations almost invariably have degrees - the people-pleasing conformity required to do well in exams is a useful preparation for corporate life.

The truth is that the real purpose of education is to manufacture reasonably obedient, moderately competent fodder for employers. If "well-educated", they will also spend their hard-earned wages unquestioningly.

Fostering original talent which inevitably challenges the status quo is absolutely not what schools are for. Yes, the so-called gifted are prized in education, but in most cases the gifted are simply people-pleasers extraordinaire.

Such prodigiously competent children - almost all of whom have been fiercely hothoused by parents - hardly ever turn out to be exceptionally able adults. We hear about David Beckham, Tiger Woods or Venus and Serena Williams, but for every one of them there are thousands of other prodigies who were similarly advanced when young but who came to nothing.

Contrary to frequent claims by psychologists, a high IQ score in childhood does not predict an equivalently successful adult career. The definitive proof of this was an American study which identified 400 children with IQs of over 140: by retirement age they had achieved nothing special.

What seems to create originals is severe childhood adversity. In every field where research has been done, a third of the high achievers lost a parent before the age of 14. This is true of British prime ministers, American presidents, dictators, entrepreneurs, poets, novelists or scientists: Clinton, Lennon and Macartney, Saddam Hussein, Charles Darwin, the Bront s.

Having interviewed about 70 modern exceptional achievers for TV, I have been repeatedly amazed at how tricky their childhoods were. Their extra ability was almost invariably a compensation for feelings of worthlessness, impotence or despair created by their childhood experience.

Of course, for every abused child that becomes Billy Connolly there are thousands who end up undistinguished, depressed or flakey, sometimes violent. To pretend that I can explain the alchemy by which the few convert the lead of their pathology into the gold of genius would be preposterous.

But I can assert that the educational system does a good deal to keep lead leaden. From around the age of seven, schools coerce children to use social comparison with peers as the means of self-evaluation. Teaching methods are employed to exploit this by creating public victories and defeats. These changes play havoc with the child's well-being and imagination.

By mid-primary school, optimism and positive responses to failure largely disappear, with increasing disinterest in school-related activities. Low self-esteem and a sense of learned helplessness become rife.

The net effect is that most people tend to leave school feeling a failure.

Perhaps this is neccessary to douse creativity and individuality, too much of which might make American advanced capitalism unworkable. But there really are alternatives within the capitalist model.

Schools need to be far more adaptable, able to tolerate the nonconformity of the Richard Bransons. That will not happen because it would require the scale of resources that Eton directs at each pupil, with very personal attention paid to individuals and great efforts made to realise potentialities.

In the meantime, if you want an exceptional achiever for an offspring you know where your duty lies: do the decent thing before they reach the age of 14.

Oliver James's book "They F*** You Up - How to survive family life" is published by Bloomsbury pound;16.99

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today