Naked Politics Blogger
Saturday night marked the end of this year’s Channel 4 documentary series Child Genius which followed 19 children in their bid to be crowned Britain’s brainiest child. On its surface, the show is a light-hearted quiz show hosted by the charismatic Richard Osman who, to his credit, brought a light-heartedness to an otherwise overly serious competition. A more cynical, and arguably more accurate, view of the show is that this show was a public exploitation of vulnerable young children who were subject to incredible levels of pressure.
This isn’t to say, however, that the story behind each of the 19 children was negative. There was one family in particular that I feel encompassed everything good about the competition. Nishi Ugalle is a 12-year-old Stephen Hawking super fan who entered herself into the competition in order to break the traditional stereotype that girls can’t be “good at math and physics.” It is perhaps fitting then that it was Nishi who lifted the Child Genius trophy. The tragedy is, however, that Nishi and her family’s approach to the competition was very much the exception to the norm. Much was made of a couple of the other families and some of them briefly need to be addressed.
During the quarter finals of the competition, 11-year-old Gar Jun from Birmingham scored 12 points and was top of the leader board after the first round. Despite this, his mum Faye was less than impressed. She was subsequently slammed on social media for her approach to the competition which she herself admitted was strict. Young Gar Jun spends every free minute outside of school revising for the competition and is only allowed to rest for 3 minutes at a time. This approach appeared to take all of the fun out of the competition for her son and just mounted even more pressure on him.
I don’t want to spend anymore time attacking individual parents and so will turn the attention of this article onto Child Genius as a whole. There are two things that need to be assessed; the competition itself and then the television programme. The biggest criticism of the competition is that it applies undue pressure on to young children aged between 9 and 12. This pressure is evident to see as the children are progressively more stressed as the rounds get tougher and tougher. This inevitably culminated in many heartbroken children who cracked under the pressure and were eliminated.
However, is being in pressurised situations actually a bad thing?
These children are all clearly incredibly gifted and for many their school education is far too easy for them. This level of competition is the only environment that will challenge and subsequently improve the children and their intelligence. It also appears that because this was an educational pressure it has been looked at in a more negative light. If this was children playing in a sporting cup final or performing at a musical concert then I don’t feel that the level of criticism would be the same.
The main problem I have is not the level of pressure but rather the source of the pressure. Most of the pressure on the children came externally rather than internally. Unfortunately, it came far too often from the parents. There were few parents more demanding than William’s mum Claire. Claire is a Doctor in her own right and had high expectations for her son. She was quoted on the show saying, “When William’s on that podium, I will be living every single second that William is living. I do feel I’ve taken on the responsibility of his progress in this competition.” There is a fine line between supportive and being pushy but unfortunately, for many of the children, their parents stepped well over that line.
The greatest shame in all of this is that it is the children who the parents love so much that will suffer in the long run. They are likely to get burnt out with education by the time they get to university age and much of their potential could be lost.
Now that the competition has been addressed, it is necessary to address the television programme. The main issue I have is that broadcasting the show on Channel 4 inevitably casts more eyes onto the children and consequently puts more pressure on them. This is evident with the subsequent pressure that has come after the show was aired. Social media has been very critical of many of the parents and a considerable amount of national newspapers have printed articles on them. It is true that almost none of the negativity is aimed at the children but it would be naïve to think that they will not be detrimentally affected by their parents being attacked.
The host of the programme, Richard Osman, has been on record to defend the show. Talking to the Radio Times in 2017 he defended the show on the grounds that “on this show we make clever kids the heroes. We’re saying it’s OK to learn stuff and know answers to things. We’re doing a great service for these kids.” On this point I actually agree with Richard. There is a stigma about the ‘clever kids’ at school and if this programme can show kids that it’s ok to pursue academic paths then that is fantastic.
Ultimately, Child Genius was a great success for Channel 4 and so is likely to be on our screens for many years to come. The negative backlash on social media and in the press only boosts viewing numbers as any publicity is good publicity. If people are that serious about stopping the programme then they are going to have to vote with their remote controls and simply not watch the next series.