HL Deb 14 May 1969 vol 302 cc122-38

2.57 p.m.

LORD CARRINGTON rose to call attention to the needs of gifted children and the necessity for Government action; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. Perhaps at the outset I ought to make it clear what I am not talking about, and what I am not going to talk about. This Motion is not concerned in any way with the current discussion about comprehensive or grammar schools, about streaming or about the 11-plus. It is concerned with a much narrower field than that but, nevertheless, one that I believe to be of considerable importance. I am conscious that there are many of your Lordships who know very much more about this subject than I do, and who are intimately concerned with it in their everyday life. I seek only to ventilate the problem and express my own personal concern.

In The Republic, Plato said that the God who fashioned us mixed gold in the composition of those who are of the most precious quality. So that the first and chief injunction laid by Heaven upon rulers, among all the things of which they must show themselves good guardians, is to watch most carefully the mixture of metals in the souls of children: if any produce a child with gold or silver they will promote him according to his value. These are the children with whom I am concerned this afternoon.

It is of course very difficult to make any accurate assessment of how many children of that kind there are in this country—or indeed exactly how you define them, where you draw the line and what the criteria are. In the Plowden Report on Primary Schools, we are told that as many as 6 per cent. of children are said to have an I.Q. of over 140, but I think a more generally accepted figure is something under 2 per cent., which means that we are talking about something in the region of 60,000 children in our schools. This leaves aside, of course, the substantial number of children who have a creative talent which is not always, or not necessarily, shown up in an I.Q. test.

Sixty thousand may not seem to be very many, and it may be that some of your Lordships may query whether there is any need to draw attention to their problems; or, indeed, may question the assumption that there are any problems. Why, it may be asked, if the child is particularly gifted and intelligent, need any concern be shown? We can all of us think of cases in which clever children have from the outset done extremely well at home, in their schools, have got to the top of their professions and have led useful and distinguished lives. But I think that most of us can think of cases where this has not happened.

It may well be, for example, that in quite a number of cases parents do not recognise that their children are exceptionally gifted. Among the less well-off sections of the community—for example, in the immigrant population—parents, though recognising that their child may be different from their other children, do not necessarily understand that the child may be that much more gifted. If such a child is not encouraged and helped in his or her early life, he may become discouraged, withdrawn, and consequently appear to be both difficult and not particularly intelligent. And even though the parents may recognise the special requirements of their children, it is not always easy to find a suitable school—a school which understands the particular problems which beset these children.

All of us know, or most of us know, I think, from the time when we were at school, about the herd instinct: how conventional, generally speaking, children are, and how anything out of the ordinary, either in appearance or in manner, in intellect or in behaviour, attracts scorn, derision and sometimes unkindness amounting to bullying and physical violence. A child so treated at school may become discouraged and withdrawn, and so, once again, not fulfil his potential. Physically, the child may be seven or eight years old; emotionally, he may be seven or eight years old; but mentally lie may be two or three years older—and this in itself raises problems at school. For he may find the company of his contemporaries deplorably dull and unstimulating since he is mentally a great deal older than they are, and yet he may not be accepted by those of his mental age, who see him physically and emotionally as a child much younger than they are. Teachers, too, may not recognise that they are dealing with a particularly gifted child. They may consider him to be rather precocious or tiresome; and perhaps even in some cases the teacher may resent the fact that the child has an intellect recognisably and noticeably better than his or her own. The consequence of all this may be that the child becomes bored and listless and, so to speak, opts out of everyday life.

My Lords, I have no doubt that most of your Lordships have personal experience of some children in the categories of which I have been speaking. May I just quote two cases to your Lordships? A boy from a town in the Midlands, of Polish extraction—his father was a Pole who had fought in the Second World War—was very unhappy and failing in junior school. He was extremely interested in drawing, but, of course, was much too young for an art school. His parents recognised that he had a particular talent and were very worried about him, the more so because the boy was becoming increasingly discouraged and withdrawn. They approached the local authority, and the local authority were very reluctant indeed to help. For many months they would do nothing at all, but after a good deal of pressure they moved the boy to a school outside their own area where the emphasis on art was very high, and at the end of three years that boy was a changed person. He was doing very much better, and he was very much happier

Then there is another case about which I know, of a boy whose parents had sent him to a school for young musicians. The boy was miserable, largely because he did not have the academic stimulus to satisfy his very high intelligence. He became more and more discouraged, and lost interest even in music. In the end, it was necessary for him to be given medical treatment, and at the moment that child is at a school for children with problems of that kind. There are, of course, a good many examples like this. Some, I am glad to say, have been recognised by the local education authority or by their teachers and have been sent to schools which cater for their particular talents. But one thing stands out in all these cases, I think, and that is the need for a greater awareness among parents, among schoolteachers and among local education authorities of the need to recognise and cater for this particular class of child. Even then, it does not always succeed: but basically the problem is recognition by parent and teacher of the gifted child, and subsequently proper facilities for his care.

What then is the answer to this problem? It is of course very easy to put down a Motion in this House asking the Government to do something without specifying exactly what, or without taking into account the cost of any proposals that may be made. It is even easier, on occasions, to suggest from the Opposition side, from a position, perhaps, of not so much responsibility as on the Government side, things which may involve large sums of public money being spent on solutions which are, to say the least of it, arguable. I have absolutely no intention of doing that this afternoon. Indeed, all I want to do is to propose to the Government one or two simple things which would involve spending no extra money. But before I do that, there is one solution to this problem which I have no doubt will be propounded by some of your Lordships and which I think we should examine, and that is the creation of separate schools for gifted children.

My Lords, I believe that in Russia if a child is particularly gifted in mathematics, for example, he is sent to a school which specialises in that subject, and from the time he goes to that school he associates with children of his own mental level. He studies there all the time, and he becomes a mathematician, educated to the highest possible degree in that field. I have seen it suggested that we should do something on those lines in this country. I can see the attractions of that, but I can also see what I believe to be its grave disadvantages. It is perfectly true that if we did this we would as a country have taken advantage of the brainpower available to us, but I am doubtful as to whether we would have done the individual child or young man much good. He might be a brilliant mathematician, but I am not sure that he would be a very happy, or possibly a very attractive, human being. It cannot surely be a good thing to give a child a sense of being different, of not belonging to the ordinary run of his contemporaries, of setting him apart from everyday life.

My Lords, I think concern must be shown about these children, but it is a mistake always to be showing to a child that you are concerned. There are no doubt some of your Lordships who would say, "That is all very well, but what about the Yehudi Menuhin School?" That school, as your Lordships know, was opened in 1964 for children with a particularly high musical ability, and the idea was, and is, to provide a first-class musical training, but at the same time a high standard of general education. There is no doubt that this has been an extremely successful experiment. I am inclined to think that there is a difference between children with a particular gift for the arts, especially music and dancing, and those of a very high I.Q. It may very well be that the proper solution for those who have these particular talents is schools in which they can be specially educated in their own interests; but not, I think—though I should hate to be, and hesitate to be, dogmatic—for the other sort of gifted child, though I think it follows that in the ordinary schools he will up to a point have to be treated in an extraordinary way.

What I should like the Government to do first of all is to accept the recommendation of the Plowden Committee, at the end of the chapter on the gifted child in their Report, which your Lordships will remember was published last year, in which they say that long-term studies should be made on the needs and achievements of gifted children. I do not really think that at the present time we know enough about the subject. We recognise the problem, or we are beginning to recognise the problem, but in almost no country in the world that I know of has long-term research been carried out. I know, for example, that the Department of Education and Science in this country has had a conference at which Her Majesty's inspectors have discussed the educational needs of these children. They issued an interesting Report on it which I read, and, perhaps as a result of it (I do not know), there are one or two local education authorities—particularly to single out two of them, Oxfordshire and Essex—which have done a certain amount of work in this field. But I think that everybody will agree that we are a long way from understanding the problem and a long way even from getting most local authorities, let alone schools and individual teachers in those schools, to understand it or perhaps even to be aware of its existence. All of us in our everyday lives know what a long time it takes for new ideas to percolate from the top to the bottom or, indeed, from the bottom to the top.

I am sure that the Government should put in hand these long-term studies suggested by Lady Plowden. In the meantime, I think that there are one or two sensible things which the Department of Education could try to do. They are contained in the recommendations of the Plowden Committee in their chapter on handicapped children. What I suggest is that for the word "handicapped" should be substituted the word "gifted"—not, may I say at once, because I am criticising the amount of work and care which is taken in the education of handicapped children. What I am saying is that if we are going to spend a great deal of time and trouble on either physically or mentally subnormal children, we must surely be right to spend as much time and as much trouble on children who are mentally above normal.

My Lords, perhaps I could remind you of these recommendations. They were, varied as I have suggested: Early and accurate identification of handicapped [gifted] children from birth onwards is essential. Teachers need to be alert to children showing difficulty and to arrange for them to have expert examination without delay. (ii) Assessment of handicap [gift] should be a continuing process in which teachers, doctors, psychologists and parents must cooperate as a team. (iii) A counselling service is needed for the parents of handicapped [gifted] children"— for, as I said earlier, it is the parent as well as the child who may need help and educating. (iv) A detailed enquiry should be made into the needs of [these] children … Teachers … should be equipped to help handicapped [gifted] children as far as they can.

These are not very radical proposals, but they would at least go some way towards helping the problem which I have ventured to put before your Lordships. I have done so as shortly as I could for two reasons: first, because I believe that these children have as much right as anybody else to fulfil their own potential. That has always been the purpose of our educational system: opportunity for everyone. A child should not suffer because he is cleverer than his contemporaries any more than any society should abandon those who are unable to compete with their contemporaries. We owe it to both those classes of children in exactly the same measure. Secondly, I believe this to be important because as a nation we cannot afford to neglect that very small section of the community who are the originals—those who are going to make the greatest contribution to our society, whether it be in the field of arts, science or technology. There are not very many of them. We cannot afford to waste them. I believe that at the present time we are wasting quite a few of them. They are wasting their lives and we are not getting from them the contribution which they could give. Let us make sure that we do not waste them, for their sake and for ours. I beg to move for Papers.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, I think that we must all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, for initiating this debate on a most important but little-discussed aspect of education. We must also be grateful to him for the suggestions that he has put to the Government, all of which I would wholeheartedly back. But my personal debt of gratitude is slightly the less in that he has said so much of what I would otherwise have said—including his opening quotation, which would also have been my opening quotation. He has been absolutely right to pinpoint the danger that these "children of gold" might be thought of as "children of gold" in another and rather more distressing sense. We must first and foremost think of what is best for these children and what we can do for them that will not in any way act to the detriment of other children, rather than to think in terms of what society needs or what the nation needs—although, of course, this is something which we can consider en passant once we have established our first priority.

I am glad to say that the temptation to think of what we should do for society, as opposed to what we should do for the child, is limited by our lack of knowledge about the subject. Just as the danger of treating education as a whole as an investment for society is lessened by the fact that no country seems at all able to make reliable forecasts about its manpower for more than about five years ahead, so any temptation to try to overdevelop these gifted children is handicapped by the fact that we do not really know what they are going to do when they grow up. There is some evidence from America that the most gifted people in our society as adults are not those who were very gifted as children. This may be merely because in the past we have been slow to identify them as children and have not had the right tools to do so; but we really do not know quite enough about what their contribution to society is going to be when they grow up.

It is possible that if we are talking in terms at all of their contribution to society, an important point is the stimulus that they can give to other children in ordinary schools. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said, a key point in the discussions about gifted children at the moment is the need for separate schools. I would agree with him that there is a need for separate schools for children who show a physical, or possibly an æsthetic, aptitude of one kind or another which needs considerable practice in a particular discipline to reach its peak—children who are gifted in ballet and music. But even here I would suggest that it may be that such specialist schools should be attached to ordinary large schools to give these children the surroundings and daily companionship of children who are not immersed in this particular world. It is possible that the creation of big comprehensive schools will make this much easier. For I believe that these children as they grow up need a normal environment; and the more gifted they are the more they need to have strong roots of stability and normalcy.

If this is true of those who are gifted through physical attributes how much more is it true of those who are gifted because they have a very high general intelligence. For ballet and music will bring out a small portion of a person's life—it will affect his whole life, admittedly; but the question of a very high I.Q. or very high intelligence is something which will affect the whole of a child's life. It may he that these children have more need than most for a normal background. There appears to be a little evidence, though we are not at all certain, that these children do suffer from disturbances of one kind or another. Dr. Liam Hudson says: I have no systematic evidence to offer but I do have the impression that boys with exceptionally high open-ended scores tend to be socially disordered while those with exceptionally high I.Q.s tend to be schizoid. Dr. Hudson may not have systematic evidence, but I think that his opinion is one worth listening to.

It was interesting, as the noble Lord said, that a conference of H.M.I.s recently came to the conclusion that there should not be special schools for the gifted; and I think that in comprehensive schools, particularly in non-streamed comprehensive schools, there may be a solution to the problem, certainly at the secondary level. Those of us who have anything to do with non-stream comprehensive schools get more and more used to the concept of "enrichment", the idea that you can be studying one subject at different depths at the same time with a group of different abilities. To take an example, if the subject is geography and the topic is the ports of this country, the less gifted will probably take in a few useful facts about ports and how they work; the very gifted can learn a tremendous amount about ports in exactly the same lesson from exactly the same teacher, if he is working on the kind of assignment and with the kind of teaching discipline which are often used in non-stream schools.

As we put more money, as I think and hope that we shall be doing, into the capital equipment of our schools, into libraries and into providing tape machines and projectors which children can work themselves in the libraries—things which are now commonplace in many American schools—this will help children in a big school to work up to the hilt, even in a class which is not specially for gifted children. We can already see how this can happen in languages, which otherwise would be rather a bad subject for the non-streamed school; but the advent of the language laboratory has meant exactly that. It seems that probably, of all subjects, mathematics is the only one which is extremely difficult to deal with in this way. I think that we are seeing, therefore, with the coming of the big comprehensive schools, with unstreaming and with greater understanding of teaching methods and greater capital investment, some solution of the problem of how gifted children may be taught in secondary schools and yet remain in a perfectly normal background.

I think that there are much greater difficulties in primary schools, for it is here that the child is first learning certain skills, among other things. If he has these skills, such as reading and writing, he is going to be extremely bored at being among those who cannot read and write; and boredom, of course, is one thing which kills a child's spirit and capacity for being educated.

I believe that there are two possible solutions to this problem. One is the solution known as acceleration, and particularly the version of acceleration which means that a child is sent to school earlier than are other children, so that he is a couple of years ahead of his time. I do not think that this is necessarily the right solution, because he may easily be physically and emotionally not ready to go to school at a time when he is mentally able to go to school. The second solution is the special class, and I think that there is a greater case for a special class in the primary school than in the secondary school. I think that the hothouse atmosphere of intellectual élites does not come into the primary school scene at all, whereas it does into the secondary school. Such special classes can take place in the school or outside, and Plowden quotes the case of a local college of education which ran special classes one day a week for children from primary schools. This stimulated them and appeared to be very useful.

My Lords, I am well aware that none of us can be dogmatic on this subject, particularly those of us who have come to the subject of education from the political side rather than through the deep experience of teaching. But I believe firmly that these "children of gold" must grow up within society. It is not good for them, or for us, or for other children, that they should form a separate élite. We have, I think, begun to find the way to bring them up in society and yet stretch them to their uttermost.

Finally, there is one special argument against the isolation of gifted children which may appeal even to those who are most keen on streaming and specialising. In any school and in any class the dimmer children suffer from the reduced expectations of their teachers: that is a known and proved fact. It means that in the schools composed entirely of very bright children, even some of the very bright children will be failing to realise their potential. It has even been rumoured that the noble Lord, Lord James of Rusholme, who I am delighted to sec is taking part in the debate (perhaps in his speech he will correct me if I am wrong) was heard at one time to say, "What we did with the dimmer children at Manchester Grammar School was …". The noble Lord did not finish the sentence because his words were drowned in a roar of laughter. In the country of the I.Q.s of 150, the I.Q.s of 125 or 130 may even be "dimmer". My Lords, there are many ways of tackling this problem. I believe that I have outlined one way of which we shall be seeing a great deal in the future. But even if I am mistaken in this particular way ahead, at any rate do not let us fall for the temptation to subordinate the happiness and fulfilment of these children to the hypothetical demands of society.

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, both noble Lords who have spoken so far have began with Plato and his golden children, and both left the quotation at that and have gone no further; because, of course, what Plato wanted to do with these children was most rigidly to segregate them in order to qualify them for an utterly dominating position in their society. I should say at the beginning that I, and I believe everyone in the country, would agree with what has been said so far; which is that this kind of approach should be avoided, and I think this is what we shall be debating this afternoon.

Before getting on to that let me take your Lordships back a little, not so far as Plato but to a remarkable novel published in 1911 called The Hampdenshire Wonder, which I think many noble Lords will know—a black comedy by a half-forgotten novelist, J. D. Beresford. It is about one of the children we are discussing, who was imagined to have reached such a degree of advancement that at the age of 4½, as soon as he had learned to read, he read the entire Encyclopædia Britannica in a period of eleven days, I think it was. At the end of that time the intellectual adult who was interested in him said to him, "Will you try to tell me, my boy, what you think of—all this? "—referring to the Encyclopædia. The child replied, "So elementary… inchoate… a disjunctive … patchwork."

Then the time came for his fate to be settled by the local education authority, and the vicar spoke as follows: … feelings began to find vent in words, in a long stream of insistent asseverations, pitched on a rising note that swelled into a diapason of indignation. He spoke of the position and power of his Church, of its influence for good among the uneducated, agricultural population among which he worked. He enlarged on the profound necessity for a living religion among the poorer classes; and on the revolutionary tendency towards socialism, which would be encouraged if the great restraining power of a creed that enforced subservience to temporal power was once shaken. And, at last, he brought his arguments to a head by saying that the example of a child of four years old, openly defying a minister of the Church, and repudiating the very conception of the Deity, was an example which might produce a profound effect upon the minds of a slow-thinking people; that such an example might be the leaven which would leaven the whole lump; and that for the welfare of the whole neighbourhood it was an instant necessity that the child be put under restraint, his tongue bridled, and any opportunity to proclaim his blasphemous doctrines forcibly denied to him. The vicar's friend who had been listening to this said: But you cannot confine a child in an asylum on those grounds; the law does not permit it. Well, my Lords, we have come a long way since such views could form the subject even of a black comedy. I do not believe that the blackest comedy could now be made out of any such approach to the children we are talking about this afternoon.

I introduce this story in order to reinforce what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said. We are talking to-day about the very top of the pyramid. I hope that the debate will concentrate on this because it is here that the problem is unfamiliar. What happens to the top 10 per cent. of children is known to us. The problem of what happens to the brightest 0.1 per cent. is the unfamiliar problem before us to-day. It is difficult to identify the very peak of the pyramid. What criterion do we use? Do we use the I.Q. scale? We sometimes forget what the I.Q. is and what Binet invented. I.Q. simply means that if we take a large group of children of 10 years of age most of them behave intellectually as though they are 10 years old. Some behave as though they were 11, and are then said to have an I.Q. of 110. Others perhaps behave as though they were 15—these are obviously geniuses, and will have an I.Q. of 150. But some will behave as though they were less than 10 years, as if they were 7, and these will have an I.Q. of 70. Merely to set out what I.Q. means is to remind ourselves of what a rough-and-ready method of judgment it must be. Also, of course, it does not take account of the great distinction which I think will hang over this debate between the all-round genius and the specialised genius. The very advanced child can be identified early in one or two subjects—for example, mathematics, music and dancing—and it is not too difficult to see, and I think that there is general assent, that there must be special provision either in special groups or in schools for these children; otherwise their talents would be wasted. Common sense suggests this and experience shows that it works pretty well.

The child with an all-round I.Q. of 140 to 150 who is exceptionally good at everything constitutes a much more difficult problem, and at the moment it would be hard to say that there is any evidence whether he gets on best when left with the ordinary run of children from I.Q. 130 downwards or when he is taken out into special groups. I think it is by now a truism to say that we must beware of automatically transferring American findings to our own society because their educational structure has been based on the search for the greatest possible equality of opportunity for much longer than ours and modern studies there may be motivated sometimes by a desire to return to the intellectual inequalities of the British system, whereas the search for the greatest possible equality of opportunity in this country, much shorter lived, has been motivated by a desire to achieve what has long been fact in America. The two systems are, as it were, looking at each other with a historically grounded yearning of a certain sort and such things notoriously condition research results.

To segregate or not to segregate, whichever needs to be done, I think it is clear (and I shall listen to the debate with interest on this point) that local education authorities have the power to do it. They can send children, if they can afford it and judge it right, virtually to any sort of school found in this country; they can also set up, within reason, any sort of school which can be devised. The structural and legal statutory framework is clearly sufficient to cope with any diversity of treatment that may be devised for these exceptionally bright children. What is not clear is how it ought to be used and what should be done, and for this reason I welcome this debate.

Let us look at it historically, Michelangelo did not go to school. There was no Education Act in Florence then. He worked in a stonemason's yard but by the time he was 13 years old it was obvious to everybody that he was an exceptionally good sculptor, and under the structure at that time the Prince picked him out through his employer and favoured him. Something of the same sort happened in 18th and 19th century England, or should have done. The practice was that a nobleman or great landowner who found a bright boy on his estate paid for him to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Many of those who have made English culture and history obtained their education in that way, feudally. Then came the Education Act and the old feudal forces were relieved of their non-statutory duty to perform this function. Although the framework is there ready for such children it is hard to know how it should be used, because it must be fair. That is the drawback of the Education Act. It is the other side of the coin which ensures that something shall be done for everybody.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to the report of the Inspectors' Conference. The Government would agree that this is one of the leading documents in this field. Perhaps I may mention that two other studies are going on at the moment—both non-governmental—one under the auspices of the Liverpool University Department of Education and the other by the Brent wood College of Education. These studies are in primary schools and they are experiments to find out what happens when you give special attention to groups of highly gifted children and they may lead to a better understanding of the ways in which their special needs can be met. Beyond that, and more closely within the Government fold, the Schools Council has recently set up a Working Party which is due to have its first meeting next week and which will consider the whole question of the teaching of gifted children in primary schools and what possible further action the Council could take in this field.

For myself, I believe that it would be hard to improve on one paragraph of the Plowden Report, which is not long but equally more than one sentence, and I hope that your Lordships will allow me read it, because I believe that it is so wide and contains so much of the truth that it should guide our thoughts in the rest of this debate. Paragraph 869 of the Report says: To teach a brilliant child, to receive from him a thought that could not have come from the teacher himself, ought to be a source of delight, yet it may not be easy for all teachers to admit to themselves that a pupil is more intelligent than they are. A teacher who finds himself with such a child must offer his sympathy, encouragement and delight in good work and never take refuge in the dangerous half truth which many people are fond of uttering that the clever child will look after himself '. He needs just as much support from his teacher, though of a different kind, as the dull and backward. He needs to be helped to cultivate his gifts and to place them at the service of the community. He needs subject matter beyond the normal range. He needs a richer curriculum, not simply a quicker journey through the ordinary one. He needs to go deeper and wider and he must have and use the resources that this implies—a really good library… and whatever contacts can be contrived with individuals outside the school who share his interests or can further them—the local museum curator, for instance, or any practitioner, architect, ornithologist, physicist, painter—who is willing to help him. The schools have a responsibility towards these children which must be taken seriously. It may be that the way ahead lies through something like that paragraph. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, suggested a rough equation between "handicap" in the Plowden conception and "gift"—and I would accept that as a generalisation. As much care should he given to the one class as to the other. I think it is fair to say that the class we treat as handicapped is much larger than that of exceptionally intelligent children whom we are discussing this afternoon. But may it not be that the true solution to this problem still lies, as it always has, partly in social accident, in the added bringing together of the very brilliant child with one aptitude with adults around and about, who may or may not be teachers, who are masters of that trade—a sort of fortuitous apprenticeship? It has always worked this way and it may continue to work this way.

These are ideas I throw out without any reason to proclaim them as Government or non-Government policy. To be frank, there is no Government policy in this field at the moment. I think that it would be wrong for there to be any Government policy, when the amount of knowledge and experience and the very concepts we are dealing with are so young and so small. I will listen with the greatest attention to the rest of the debate. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science will follow what is said, and I will do my best to answer further points at the end.