In my first year at secondary school, during a maths lesson, I wet myself. The teacher barked an order at me, I didn’t understand her and was too scared to ask for clarification. When inevitably I carried out her order incorrectly, the forces of hell were unleashed upon me. She screeched and screamed and spittle was propelled from her anger on to my face. I had never felt such fear before, nor such humiliation.
Now I am all grown up I can see that she was a milicious child-hater who should not have been working anywhere near children. Back then we used what little power we had by calling her Davros behind her back and whispering ‘resistance is futile’ whenever she came near. Davros for those not familiar with Doctor Who of the 1970s was the emperor dalek. He had a dalek bottom half with a grotesque human head, arms and torso perched on the top. The maths teacher was a close match both in looks and temperament.
It was my son Jamie’s first day at secondary school yesterday. Many aspects of his transition into the next stage of education have been managed well and I wish that my secondary school had been half as good as his appears to be. But Jamie has found school very difficult, so when he came home yesterday smiling and reporting on a good day, I was relieved. At bedtime though, traditionally the confessional time in our house, he said he had felt humiliated by the maths teacher. For a child who has struggled with education I was immediately impressed at the use of such a long word and then saw the tears in his eyes. Children with early trauma can see humiliation and put down where none was intended and Jamie is no exception. But a public mocking can also inflict a painful wound on a child with deep insecurities. So not knowing the whole truth of the matter and aware that secondary schools expect some distance from pesty mothers, I will bide my time and see how things go. I decided instead to recount my Davros story to him and he listened wide-eyed. At breakfast this morning he told his sister that mummy wet herself at school and they both choked with laughter. Jamie went to school looking happy. There’s no maths today.
A beautiful friend once complained to me how difficult life can be for the highly attractive. Apparently it is akin to being rich; one tends to be judged on one’s bountiful gifts and not on one’s inner qualities. It was hard to dredge up any feelings of sympathy. I was reminded of this moment when I listened to Woman’s Hour on Friday and learned of the existence of the National Association for Gifted Children. It appears that being a quick learner comes with its own drawbacks amongst which can be boredom, which leads to messing around in class, which leads to a prescription for Ritalin.
As a governor of a small primary school I have often heard parents complaining that their gifted children are not being well-served. There may be some truth in this of course, but their complaints outnumber the complaints of those representing children at the other end of the spectrum, by quite some margin and by most measures they have far more reason to complain. There is something of the sharp-elbowed about it and that is why educators and budget-setters have to be wary of the loud, educated voices of self-interest and balance them against the interests of children who may not have such effective advocates.
Most children who have spent their early years staring at a ceiling are not likely to be bothering the National Association for Gifted Children any time soon. If they are messing around in class then it will have much more to do with fear and self-loathing than about finding the work too easy. Like gifted children they don’t qualify for any special funding at school (the government ceased funding schemes for Gifted and Talented children earlier this year). It is worth spelling this out – a child whose early neglect and abuse renders that child often unable to function in the classroom at all receives no additional help or funding within school. If that child has special educational needs then they will get funding, but if their difficulties are not so easy to label then unless they happen to be in an unusually understanding school, that child will perform far below their potential. And there is more to play for here than dropping a few GCSE grades.
So maybe those of us who parent these children need to sharpen our elbows and become more vocal. There are many complex reasons why that is difficult. Our children take a lot of parenting which leaves little energy left for campaigning. We can be vilified by other parents who are fed up with our children disrupting the education of theirs, which saps one’s self-confidence. And many of us don’t want to go broadcasting the confidential facts about our children’s background around the playground. But maybe there could be a solution which helps everyone. If these children who started life at the bottom of the heap, were to receive the help they so badly need then their life chances would be radically improved. It is likely that classroom disruption would be reduced and the benefits felt by every child. It would be money intelligently spent and the marker of a mature and caring society – a big society.