Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Philip Hensher, FRSL

  This is a short memorandum, based on my personal experience, relating to the Committee's inquiry into the education of gifted children. I think the subject is less complex than might initially be thought. On the whole, in my experience, people fulfil their potential. Gifted adults were gifted as children, and there is a strong danger that, in an inquiry of this nature, disproportionate attention will be paid to the experiences of those who, for whatever reasons—not necessarily to do with their education—do not fulfil their childhood potential, and are only gifted children. Secondly, in most cases, there is little point to tailoring education to a gifted child. What an unusually clever child needs, in nine cases out of 10, is benign neglect. An exceptional child doesn't need cramming; he will benefit most from being given unlimited access to a library, solitude and time to think. More than that, the educational system cannot provide, and the committee should not even consider the proposition that schools for geniuses will result in more geniuses.

  I am by profession a novelist and cultural critic. As a child, I was always thought of as more than unusually intelligent, and performed the usual prodigious tricks of intelligence; I could read fluently at three, could identify the orders of architecture at five, could distinguish between a Mozart sonata allegro and one by Haydn at seven, and so on. None of this is interesting in itself, or particularly remarkable in the great scheme of things. The point I want to make is that I would have been a prime target for selection for a school for gifted children, and I am extremely glad I avoided the fate. I think I have fulfilled, or am fulfilling my potential, and am strongly of the opinion that I would not have done if my education had not been an ordinary one.

  I went to a state school, Tapton Comprehensive School in Sheffield between 1977 and 1983. It was certainly an excellent school, and the education I had there was what every gifted child ought to have. First, most of the teachers I had made an effort to talk to me. Secondly, I was not crammed with information, or treated as somebody who could, if he chose, take 15 "O" levels. My qualifications are no better than hundreds of people. The sense I always had was that so long as I did what I was interested in, and passed a respectable number of "O" and "A" levels, I could do whatever I wanted. In other words, I wasn't "stretched"; I stretched myself, and in the directions I wanted to go in.

  What would have happened to me if I had had special treatment? No-one, when I was seven, or eight, could have discerned that I was going to end up writing novels. I would have been stretched in some of the wrong directions. Some of the things I can do which were never more than party tricks—a quickness with mental arithmetic, for instance—would, to an external judge, seem like the basis for later achievement.

  I am grateful for my education; I am grateful to my parents, who steadily refused all proposals to put me in a higher year, and would have regarded the idea of special schools with revulsion; I am pleased that nobody had the faintest idea what I was going to do, and didn't try to push me in any particular direction, so that I found my own way, in my own time, to what I now do. Of course it was haphazard, but all inquiring intellectual development is haphazard. And of course it was a solitary endeavour, because a human being has to come on his own to understanding and knowledge. It was solitary at Cambridge; and it has gone on being so ever since. And no teacher, no special school, no change of educational policy, can ever make it less so.

  The committee has probably heard a great number of stories from people and of people who think they were neglected by ordinary systems of education. It should regard these views with the utmost scepticism. They are always excuses for not amounting to very much in later life. Intelligence is not a fragile quality which is going to wither in a child if it isn't given constant attention. Nor is it lost if it hasn't produced anything much by the time a child leaves school. It sometimes takes its time, and nothing will speed up the processes of an exceptional mind. I think a child is much more likely to give up if he is constantly pushed, or faced with unhelpful competition. The best thing that can be done for a child who was in my position is to live within five miles of a really good library, and to let his be on his own whenever he wants to be. Putting a group of gifted children together is asking for trouble.

  The committee will recall, that in that great masterpiece, Back In the Jug Agane, Molesworth returns from the holidays to St Custards to be asked what he has read recently.

    "What hav you read, molesworth?"

    Tremble tremble moan drone, I hav read nothing but red the redskin and Guide to the Pools. I hav also sat with my mouth open looking at lassie, wonder horse ect on t.v. How to escape? But I hav made a plan.

    "Proust, sir."

    "Come agane?"

    "Proust, sir. A grate fr.writer. The book in question was swan's way."

    "Gorblimey. Wot did you think if it, eh?"

    "The style was exquisite, and the characterisation superb. The long evocative passages—"

    "Silence!" thunder Grimes. "There is no such book, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers."

  I expect that the committee has heard plenty of similar anecdotes of neglect and teacherly incredulity by now. I'd just like them to remember that Molesworth, despite everything, one day still got round to reading Du cote de chez Swann, and nothing Grimes could say would have prevented it.

Dr Philip Hensher

October 1998

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