Do gifted children struggle more to fulfil their potential if they come from poor backgrounds?
This was the question posed by BBC Two’s Generation Gifted this week as it followed some bright teenagers from low-income backgrounds. Watching the children, I was intrigued by how many of the children doubted their abilities and suffered from a lack of self-confidence.
Whether this is a product of a low income background where the children feel ‘inferior’ to their better-off counterparts, I don’t know, but I recall how similar doubts, fears and anxieties beset my teenage years at school.
I make no claims to be being a bright or gifted child, but I passed exams that took me to a higher level school. ‘Senior school’, as we called it, was full of middle class teenagers, hormones and tribes. You needed to belong, which often depended on your status and abilities.
Coming from a poor background, where long terraces of houses faced each other across cobbled streets, my friends were the children of parents who worked on the shop floor of local factories. They took two week holidays to Blackpool each August, and drank down the local pub every Friday evening.
I left my friends to follow their parents into factories or the trades. The children I now mixed with were destined for university. This is what their parents wanted. This was often what they wanted, but not always.
I turned up at my new school on the first day in a free school uniform, courtesy of the benefits system, without friends or children I knew, and having no idea what to expect.
I learned not to take children home or mention the free school meals and uniform I received. I learned how to deflect questions about my family, their background, and anything remotely connected with social status. As we couldn’t afford holidays, I became adept at getting other children to tell me about theirs.
But the school’s goal to send as many of its pupils as possible to university ultimately defeated me. Science was king. They provided tuition in arts to give children a ‘more rounded perspective’, but it was only a token. Children like me, who preferred the arts and had no interest in science, confounded the powers that be.
Teachers dealt with me in the only way they knew – they tried to convert me to science. When that failed, they pretty much left me to my own devices. Luckily, I had some great arts teachers who believed in me.
But ultimately, all the school did was to reinforce my suspicions that life was against me.
Whenever I tried to better myself, someone would knock me back. Working class kids didn’t go to grammar schools and university. Of course they did, but I could never name one when I needed to. You’ll never fit in, I was told. I didn’t, but I found a way to survive and pass exams.
When I got a job as a student environmental health officer with the local council, the school abandoned me. They couldn’t believe I’d chosen technical college over university. Actually, I’d chosen a wage over a student grant.
I never lacked confidence at school. It was often my only protection as a loner, but that’s all it was – a shield, a bluff, a mask to keep me safe. Put me on a school trip with these children and I was lost. I had no idea of etiquette, how people behaved, how to respond. I had to hang back, to follow and guess, hoping no one spotted my lack of spending money and possessions.
And forty years on, watching the children on TV, I see similar issues. Doubt and a lack of self-confidence plague these talented children. They don’t believe in themselves. They worry about humiliating themselves, drawing attention to their failures.
They worry how their friends and classmates will treat them on social media, making their failures public for everyone to see.
The stress and the pressure on these youngsters are amplified by social media.
I was spared that, though I still feel a little anxious when I do anything for the first time on Facebook or Twitter. I worry about committing some huge sin or breach of etiquette that regular users take for granted.
But so what if I do? Who cares? It’ll be forgotten soon enough.
But I’ll remember the mistake. I’ll remember the others too, including the ones at school.
And watching those children, struggling to overcome their fears and doubts, brought it all back to me.
I chose the wrong career. I struggled to become a published writer until recently. I feel uncomfortable when I enter a room filled with strangers.
But it’s also why I am who I am, why I rail against unfairness, injustice, and inequality, why I’m creative.
Maybe I learned more at school than I realised.