Generation Gifted must be the saddest-ever reality TV programme. The day-to-day evidence of failure within our education system is inclined to desensitise us to the continuing narrative of how bright youngsters from deprived backgrounds are at the top of the tree only when it comes to being betrayed by the closed minds of governments and the educational establishment.
This BBC 2 investigation exposes the tragic waste of our greatest national resource – talented children. It focuses on a disparate group of 13-to-14-year-olds who have two things in common – poverty and potential.
It will track their progress over the next three years. In terms of TV education programmes, it is the best thing since Granada’s insightful and epic Seven Up series which commenced in 1964.
In many respects our school system betrays all children. Dumbed-down, knowledge-lite, undemanding lessons are the norm and leave us trailing well behind the best education systems around the world. The public examination system, now with its 15 per cent ‘pass’ mark for maths GCSE, lost credibility years ago. Teacher recruitment has become a crisis and the newly qualified are leaving in droves.
Who would want to join a teaching profession that is more concerned with self-congratulation and with force-feeding skewed notions of political correctness than with subject knowledge? What kind of educational profession is it that is now up in arms against a single five-minute multiplication tables test across six years of primary schooling?
Within the mass of pupils who are being let down, those most cheated, as Generation Gifted makes clear, are talented and intelligent children from deprived backgrounds. For them there is no postcode escape to the catchment area of a top-performing state school. Private tutoring, let alone a private school, is out of the question.
An escape route for Jada, who lives in Handsworth, Birmingham, would be transfer to grammar school at the age of 16. Her teacher advises against it. Too many posh kids driven to school in Land Rovers! She’d be likely to feel out of place. Better stick to what you know and where you belong is the anti-aspirational message. Fortunately, Jada can see though the well-intentioned deceit: ‘It doesn’t matter what class you come from because there’s a ladder and you can climb it.’
The sad truth is, though, too much talent from underprivileged backgrounds is being wasted. It is a disgrace! Our country needs to maximise the potential of young people, not stifle it.
Not long ago I spoke in an educational debate at King’s College, Cambridge. My central point was that children need to be educated in line with their aptitude. Academically able children such as Jada need a grammar-school education. This could be provided by a massive expansion of grammar schools alongside a new generation of technical/vocational schools.
Alternatively, comprehensives could be reorganised into bilateral schools providing alternative pathways in line with aptitude. My opponents in the debate were from the highly regarded teacher recruitment charity for new graduates, ‘Teach First’. They made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that educating in line with aptitude was discriminatory and a form of educational apartheid. And therein lies the problem.
Generation Gifted shows that Shakira from Tamworth has artistic talents which would be best developed in a school or school stream that focuses on the technical/vocational pathway. In contrast, Kian from Hartlepool needs a grammar school to nurture his academic gifts.
Sadly, what these children need is not available. A ‘bog-standard’ comp education is all that is on offer. True, some of the teachers we see in action are admirable, even inspiring, in their good intentions but, in the long term, most of their gifted charges are never going to break free of their backgrounds and fulfil their potential. They desperately need to be taught alongside other children of similar aptitude.