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Child Genius

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The headmistress at the Barrowford primary school in Lancashire recently sent all of her children an encouraging letter after their Key Stage 2 tests. She reminded her children that although the tests were important, and that they should be proud of their results, they could never be used to test or judge a whole person. She reminded them that the tests didn’t show that they were a caring sibling or that they did their very best. 

We need teachers like this. You only have to watch Child Genius on Channel 4 to find out why.

The programme follows a group of talented children who undergo a battery of tests to find Britain’s brightest child. For over an hour, the programme seemed to staple my eyelids to my forehead. But when a 12-year-old girl broke down, her red cheeks running with tears, it was as if someone had broken the spell. Up until then the programme had been full of anxious children trying to spell words like ‘haemorrhoid’ and ‘septuagenarian’ but now there was real distress on display.

We’re putting wannabe doctors under the same pressure. Recently one medical student told me that the admission criteria to win a place at medical school is now nine A* passes at GCSE and three grade A passes at A-level. You also have to excel in extra-curricular activities like playing the guitar, volunteering for the MSF and running a nursing home in your spare time.

The student in question was already compiling a portfolio and a CV and asked if I had any tips because he was desperate to get something published, perhaps in The Lancet,  as it would mean he could really get his foot on the ladder.

He was in his first year and I was slackjawed with incredulity. When I was in my first year, I didn’t want a portfolio and I didn’t want to get published in The Lancet either. All I wanted was to look like Kurt Cobain, and I never did manage that.

But what struck me most was how frightened my student was of getting an answer wrong. I asked him why a patient would benefit from putting GTN ointment up his bum and he mumbled something about angina. He didn’t think about haemorrhoids, and although I congratulated him on his lateral thinking, his red cheeks reminded of the child from Child Genius, fighting back her tears on the podium. He wasn’t prepared to get anything wrong - nothing at all - and I felt like the pushy parent, tut-tutting on the sidelines.

Without the intellectual freedom to make mistakes, you kill creativity stone dead. The freedom to chance your arm has been amputated by our obsession with tests and right answers.  

A medical registrar I once worked with spent the entire two weeks of his annual leave in the doctors’ mess learning the contents of the BNF. He did it so that his consultant wouldn’t shout at him again, so that his consultant, who he loved and feared in equal measure, would love him back. I called him a prize twat and suggested that if he really wanted to be loved he should learn how to play the guitar, we’ve been good friends ever since. He plays the guitar, he’s married and he almost became Kurt Cobain.

My registrar found a way out of his own cul-de-sac of fear. But when you have individuals with less insight than him, cowed and terrified by the threat of litigation and patient complaint, is it any wonder that the institution which they collectively make-up also has the same qualities? As I sat watching Child Genius, I asked myself how clever you have to be to study medicine. Not this clever, surely? A few doctors I know, and plenty of those that I don’t, can’t even spell haemorrhoid. 

The NHS has lost its compassion. It’s fearful and unimaginative, and sweats under the spotlight like a child at a spelling bee. 

Dr Kevin Hinkley is a GP in Aberdeen.

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Readers' comments (7)

  • Thank you for raising this. I agree

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  • As a retired school teacher I unreservedly endorse the sentiments in this article. Whilst engaged in my teacher training It was instilled in me that the 'whole' child should be educated, not just the academic part. I still believe this and am saddened that education has lost its way in the pursuit of academic excellence at all costs.

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  • Apologies for It instead of it in reply above. Presbyopia and iPhone incompatible. :-(

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  • Obviously an IT problem............ Agree entirely with the article.

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  • Thing is though it's other doctors who are stressing the trainees in unecessarily sadistic ways.

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  • So agree with retired fellow teacher Kathleen Hill.
    So frightening to see the pressure some parents put their children under, to "achieve".
    The child mentioned broke down because she was not fulfilling her own aims. She entered the contest under her own steam.
    However, scoring eight in the penultimate round made her feel she had achieved a respectable score, even though it was too low to enter into the final round.
    Surely fashions in education will change?
    We have all had to adopt ways of teaching that were sheer nonsensical because advisors advised it to the minions.
    A sensible article, and pretty sad.
    We all have to break out of the box at some time and decide what sort of life we really want.
    So a tick box culture ,it seems, is now in place from nursery onwards. My grandson was advised for future learning that he had to learn to sit quietly on the mat for story.
    He was then not even two years old...!

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  • I do believe in academic excellence.

    Child genius has nothing to do with academic excellence. Hot housed children may be useful( in career terms) in some narrow mathematical fields but at what cost.
    There is a balance to be had between academic rigour, deep learning and creativity. We will always struggle to get it right.
    This article and sentiments expressed were very appropriate - easily the best thing I've ever read in Pulse.

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