Cameron Wyllie: Face the facts, some kids are just smarter than others

Children's exam results are not solely down to the ability of their teachers or their socio-economic background; the individual's pupil's intelligence also plays an important role, one that is sometimes forgotten, says retired headteacher Cameron Wyllie.

Some children are smart in an academic sense, others have different skills but thankfully we no longer make them sit in the corner in a dunce's cap (Picture: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)
Some children are smart in an academic sense, others have different skills but thankfully we no longer make them sit in the corner in a dunce's cap (Picture: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

So the exam results have arrived and throughout Scotland young people are rejoicing or apologising or complaining or crying or ... drinking, according to what was in their text message or their email or the certificate dropped off by the carrier pigeon.

Their parents will be doing the same – gasping with relief, full of pride or on the bus to lodge the appeals and ... drinking. My Higher results were handed to me in Kirkliston in 1974 by our postwoman, Mrs Arbuckle. She was a friend of my mother and she stood there for a minute, half hoping, I think, to watch me open the big brown envelope but I didn’t give her that satisfaction. Anyway, they were fine and I was glad, and amid all the discussion of grade inflation, standards dropping, paying for university and finding a job, let’s just pause and wish all this year’s exam candidates well for the future, remembering our own disappointment, terror, satisfaction or joy.

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However, let’s also ask a question – why do some young people pass exams and others fail them?

Here are possible answers in no particular order: a, some young people are taught the subject better than others: yes! b, ome young people are taught more about exam technique: yes! c, some young people work harder than others: yes! d, s a means of assessment, exams suit some people more than others – yes! e, some young people choose their courses better than others and get more help in so doing: yes! f, some young people come from socially disadvantaged households where education is considered less of a priority: yes! g, some young people’s parents spend a shedload of money on tutoring: yes! h, some young people have specific learning difficulties which are not properly recognised and are thus disadvantaged in exams: yes! i, some young people have to deal with difficult pastoral issues in the run up to exams: yes!

And no doubt j, k, l etc etc can also reasonably apply. Of course, there’s one answer missing: some young people are more intelligent than others.

Now, before you set off to firebomb my lovely home, let me make a comment or two. Firstly, I know we are only talking about one form of intelligence, what for the sake of the argument I will call ‘academic intelligence’ – and I know there are lots of others ‘intelligences’; and secondly I know that all these other factors listed above really matter.

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However, we do seem to have reached a point where talking about how ‘clever’ a child is has gone out of fashion to the point of political incorrectness. Now this causes two problems, the major one being that it enables those who plan our curricula to get away with making much the same offer to all our young people – a ‘level playing field’ argument, when in fact some young people are much more able to play that game from the outset because of their brains.

Actually, what we should be doing is following the model of many other countries – say, for example, Germany – in accepting that different children have different skills and abilities, and widely differing levels of ‘academic’ intelligence and building school courses (and schools) accordingly.

To many this may seem old-fashioned and reactionary but to many it’s just common sense. In education, one size does not fit all. One way of combating this would be to stop measuring the success of secondary schools in terms of how many pupils gain university entrance.

Additionally, this state of affairs makes it very hard to explain with any honesty why one child does better than another – teachers, parents and pupils get caught up in a mire of excuse-making. It also underplays the huge successes of less able pupils who do relatively well through conscientiousness, good teaching and the support of teachers and families.

So, we need to talk more about intelligence and accept that it matters and we need to take a much wider view of our young people and what they can achieve. This is not an easy thing to do, and it’s always been difficult, as I found out at a very early stage in my career.

A long time ago, in a school in the faraway North (of Edinburgh) I had, in my Higher English class, a boy whom I will call Angus – a name his parents may have considered. Angus was new into the school, and was a great boy – kind, cheerful, hard-working. He became popular very quickly because he liked everybody, was quite sporty, wholly lacked conceit and was polite and respectful to teachers in a very genuine way. He did his Higher English prelim and he failed it and then we had parents’ night.

So I am sitting with his mum and dad, and this was in the days before (heaven forfend) the students themselves came to meetings, a step which, of course, made them infinitely more useful. I begin by praising Angus as a model of decency, maturity and hard work. I suggest that they should be really proud of Angus, and, shyly, these nice people concurred. And then I carry on: “So as regards the prelim, he demonstrated real progress and I think, if his attitude to work carries on like it is, he will pass at the end of the day.”

“Why did he fail the prelim?” asks his mother.

“He finds some of the work quite difficult,” I say, “but he’s trying very hard.”

“Maybe he needs to do some extra work?” she responds.

“He already is. He volunteered. He’s just done a big interpretation which I’ve marked (aaaaarrrrgggghhhh) and given him back. He sat down with me on Wednesday and we went over it.”

“Do you think ...” the mother pauses, then says “it might be your teaching?”

Angus’s father stirs in his seat. “No, he really likes Mr Wyllie,” he says pointedly to his wife.

“Well, what is it, then?” she carries on.

Her last remark irked me, I admit, but she had boxed me into a corner anyway. “He’s just not very clever,” I say, then watch, horrified, as Angus’s mother bursts into tears.

Intelligence matters, and we’ve got to be more honest about it. Starting soon.

Cameron Wylliem, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa