A history of ‘gifted children’ shows how social difference was remade beyond ‘class’ in the late twentieth century

Jennifer Crane has held a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship to examine ‘the gifted child’ since 2019, and has published about this research in the Historical Journal and, forthcoming, in Contemporary European History. She is finalising a book manuscript which looks at how concerns about giftedness were made and remade in ‘Britain and the world’ since 1945, and which centres the voices of children themselves in responding to and changing this flexible category.

As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite has persuasively argued, ‘ordinariness’ was ‘claimed by both the middle and the working classes in the late twentieth century.  Being ordinary meant not being privileged or part of an elite.’  This rhetoric, Sutcliffe-Braithwaite shows, ‘could mask the very real differences in privilege and opportunity which marked late twentieth-century society’.  Pat Thane, also, has charted how many forms of inequality continued across the mid-to-late twentieth century.  In addition to rises in income inequality from the mid-1970s, and despite some ‘serious attempts’ from successive governments, grassroots movements had to lobby significantly in these decades to even raise awareness of, let alone counteract, multiple forms of social discrimination and structural inequality.

A history of gifted children has not yet been written, but plays a significant role in these largescale changes.  On first glance, we would assume that a quest to identify remarkably intellectually gifted children, and to nurture them as future leaders, would not fit neatly in to a social democratic welfare state.  Certainly, the 1944 Education Act, for example, had no particular interest in identifying extremely gifted children as future national leaders.  Instead, statements by Churchill and R. A. Butler, putting forward the legislation, emphasised that it was designed to give the best possible education to children of all ‘ability and aptitude’.  Academically able children from all backgrounds would attend grammar schools, yes, but the hyper-gifted would not be identified in particular, and equal attention should in this system be given to children with ‘disability of mind’ as to those of extreme intellectual ability.  Responding to the Act in the House of Commons, Labour Member John Parker stated that universal education was indeed about treating all children equally: it was a rebuttal against ‘forces of snobbery or class-consciousness which may try to limit these proposals on the ground that education should be restricted to the needs of the privileged few.’  Beyond this rhetoric, however, significant hierarchies remained in post-war education: parents were desperate to avoid their children being educated at secondary modern schools, and there were streams even within the streamed schools themselves.  This system of being categorised at a early age had real lived lifelong impact for those who passed the 11+, and those who did not.

Significantly further developing this interest in dividing children by intellect, some voluntary organisations, local authorities, national and local newspapers, and parents did begin to fixate on identifying the gifted young and, often, on making them future leaders, by the 1960s and in to the 1970s and 1980s.  These groups typically acted separately, but as part of a cultural and political moment.  National right-wing tabloid newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, for example, most explicitly argued that identifying gifted young people would be critical for reversing national economic decline – gifted children were ‘our most precious national asset’ and the current educational system was ‘wasting and stunting’ their capacities to lead economic revival.  For the new National Association for Gifted Children, these children had to be identified to help their parents – parents wrote to the organisation to describe how they could not cope with their children’s high intellectual needs, and that schools typically offered little support.  Parents were then desperate and worried, and they wanted social support and pointers to further educational resources lacking in the welfare state.

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‘Exam tables in sports hall, Epsom College’, David Hawgood, June 2010 < https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exam_tables_in_sports_hall,_Epsom_College_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1892882.jpg >.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, the idea that intellect was a legitimate marker of social difference for the young, and that the gifted young should be identified as future national leaders, had become even better established.  For the New Labour administrations, these ideas would conflict in no way with broader policy rhetoric.  While New Labour looked to replace Thatcherite ‘individualism’ with focus on ‘community’, finding the gifted in deprived areas would fit with this – it would bolster community strength.  Finding the gifted also cohered with New Labour interest in ‘opportunity’ and ‘aspiration’ – because anyone could be gifted!  New Labour gave funding to the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, which, through summer schools and publications, brought the gifted young together and (among other things) sought to equip them with ‘modern skills’ and to teach them about their potential range of ‘modern careers’, sometimes linked to corporate and industrial partners.

Huge shifts then were made in this area from the 1940s to 2000s: from purposefully not identifying the hyper-gifted young towards actively seeking them out and guiding them into ‘productive’ careers.  This shift was started in the 1970s and the 1980s, made possible through, first, new visible arenas for voluntary action, the impetus of popular individualism, and gaps in the welfare state, all leading to and magnifying parental action.  Second, this shift was started by anxious voices in psychology, media, and policy, all looking desperately for solutions to perceived productivity crises.  Interest in identifying the gifted young, and in making them future leaders, made its way from small groups and factions of media towards central government from the 1970s to the 1990s.  This is testament to the slippery yet appealing nature of this concept – the gifted child held high promise and hope, and could combat weak economies or social disadvantage alike!  While there was significant party-political change across the late twentieth century, then, the cultural-social interest of people in representing themselves as ‘beyond class’ remained consistent.  In place of class, intelligence became an acceptable, appealing, or even important measure through which to mark out difference.  This interest had real implications for the family lives and leisure time of children labelled ‘gifted’, which my work also explores.