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The following is the text of an email I sent to the Admissions Officers at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Dear Sir/Madam

I was passed this email address by [name], with whom I am given to understand you may have had extensive previous correspondence with regard to liaison with schools.

I write in my capacity as Secretary of Phoenix, a special interest group within British Mensa, whose purpose is to support people who were discouraged and held back as children for being bright, and to discuss ideas for getting educationally and professionally back on track in life.

In the four years I have run the SIG, I have encountered member after member who did not discover their intellectual abilities until later in life. While it is not my intention to discuss here the many reasons those talents may have been missed or disregarded by teachers and others, I believe it is a travesty that so many people with Oxbridge potential never even made it to higher education.

My own story is very similar.  After I had been tested as an adult and joined Mensa, my mother finally confessed that, in fact, I had been tested as a six year old and scored on the 15 year old level! I was a voracious reader, an independent learner from a young age, and had the ability to seemingly teach myself anything. Unfortunately, my abilities were not nurtured at school and I ended up not being permitted to sit my O Levels.

I am therefore wondering whether any IQ tests or standardised tests are acceptable in lieu of school qualifications for older applicants, or whether you have any advice or other comments that may be of interest to members of the SIG?

Yours faithfully

___________________________________________

The (late) reply I received from Oxford did not address any of the specific points I raised, but merely referred me to the admissions criteria listed on their website.

I am yet to receive the courtesy of a reply from Cambridge Admissions.

I cannot honestly say that I am surprised. I believe I have sufficient evidence and personal experiences to explain my firmly entrenched cynicism about the “education” system on this planet. This only reinforces the sorry picture that should have become clear to anyone following the gifted education blogs – that there is no interest in providing for people with the most capacity to make a difference, and that even elite universities are insufficiently interested in the most extreme outliers to answer a few simple questions about the issues those people face.

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In an earlier post entitled “A blow by blow account of how my formal schooling got nuked“, and the follow-up post called “How I got fixed as a student“, I described how my early precociousness was identified but completely squashed at school, and how subsequently I found an organization with a completely different take on training and education that were able (at least up to a point) to take my abilities at face value, rather than award or withhold learning opportunities based on arbitrary “prerequisites”.

My opportunities to pursue formal education or enter a professional career may have been limited, to say the least, but I was a busy person who did a lot and learned a lot regardless. I have already mentioned elsewhere how I self-educated with great enthusiasm using the public library as a resource. I played in a band and won local and national music prizes. I taught myself to play several instruments and wrote several albums’ worth of songs. I went to evening classes, at various times, in art, yoga, martial arts, and even a series of lectures on parapsychology. I entered myself for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, straight in at gold award level, during which I was lucky enough to take part in an exchange trip to Trinidad & Tobago. I volunteered as a youth leader and obtained a guider’s warrant. I wrote novels and short stories and started to work on a philosophical thesis. I got into political campaigning. People I met who took the time to get past my very quiet external facade, almost to a person, expressed astonishment when they found out I had dropped out of school as a 16 year old and did office dogsbody jobs. My outside life “CV” showed a very different person to what my official CV showed I could do, even then. But the yawning chasm was going to get a whole lot wider.

When I was 21, someone suggested that I make enquiries of the Open University. For those who are not familiar with this establishment, it is a distance learning university in the UK that caters for mature students who do not have the usual university entry requirements. Now, I wasn’t sure what subject would be the best choice, but thought that perhaps something IT or business related might put paid to the constant school record pigeonholing. I recall that phone call to this day; even the name of the advisor has stuck in my memory, and since the gentleman sounded quite elderly back then, I will show enough respect not to name and shame the (probably) deceased. We chatted about the course curriculum, and then he asked me about my educational record. From that moment, the conversation rapidly went south. Instead of enrolling on the Access (A-Level equivalent) year, which was a part of the course, he told me that I should enquire around my own town to see if there was a pre-access level course that I should take first. I queried this, as the Open University is supposed to follow the philosophy that it’s the qualification you leave with that is important, not the ones you start with, and I had never heard of anyone else being given such advice. At this juncture, the advisor started suggesting that I ought to look into purchasing certain remedial educational workbooks designed to ready learners for a pre-access course. I thanked him politely for his time and put the phone down. Whichever way I looked at it, these people were expecting me to sit through years of dum dum classes before I even made it to first base. That had worked well at school (not).

So I poured myself into studying any self-development and brain-building techniques I could find with a vengeance, and when I read Hubbard’s Dianetics I was totally intrigued. I rapidly moved from new public to academy student,  to course room volunteer, to student debug specialist, to supervisor, to training director. By the time I left the organization, 13 years later, I was in fact about three training courses away from getting my full Professorship, since they have a whole parallel system of teaching/tutoring qualifications. I learned things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be taught anywhere else. Where else would a school dropout be trained as a Professor from scratch? Or trained on advanced staff organization and management courses from nothing? I kept going back because the philosophy and the techniques went much further towards providing the intellectual stimulation I craved than anything else the world had deigned to send my way.

In my “moonlight” jobs in the outside world, I was still seen as just the office girl. That was just about liveable as long as I was an executive and senior course trainer in my voluntary gig, but when I ended up having no choice but to leave that organization, and only had the day jobs to keep me occupied, I didn’t just feel bored or restless or unhappy. I felt positively degraded. (Imagine if you were a senior lecturer somewhere, and you somehow fell into a parallel universe where none of your post-16 education was recognized, and your work history was discounted, and you had to fall back on that typist or telephonist experience from your student days just to survive.)

I don’t blame the organization. And I make no apology for my choices under the circumstances. But I suggest that if a talent-spotter had made themselves available and done the right thing, and the right training and the right sort of career had been offered at any stage, I might not have had a “need” for that organization for so long. Just a thought.

As best I could do with a hugely time-consuming desk jockey job in the legal world and, by this time, a partner who did not enjoy good health, after sorting out a few life logistics I continued investigating the world of self-development and cognitive enhancement from a more scientific perspective. The difference now was a new tool was available to me that hadn’t been available in my course room or the old-fashioned little companies where I’d moonlighted – the Internet. I spent my lunchtimes and tea breaks reading everything that was available.

One technology seemed particularly fascinating to me – that of light and sound stimulation. It worked on a purely physiological level, using flashing lights and repetitive tones to gently entrain the brain waves to desired frequencies via the frequency following response. There was an organization based in Switzerland that seemed to have a particularly interesting application of the technology to teach advanced reading skills (and I ended up training as an instructor – but that’s a whole other story). There was also an organization in Canada that sold these machines, and whose blog I started to follow. When I saw one day that the CEO/chief developer was coming to deliver a workshop in England, I signed up straight away.

Ironically, the workshop was to be delivered at the Open University’s headquarters in Milton Keynes, the very same institution whose advisor had effectively labelled me a remedial ed case all those years ago. This was especially amusing to me since I had fairly recently discovered that I was something of a cognitive outlier and had found my online home in “IQ Land”.

Towards the end of the workshop the Professor in charge of the Brain Lab at the Open University invited attendees to another workshop that he was also hosting that was to do with qEEG (quantitiative electroencephalography) and neurofeedback. No one had asked me about my background, so I signed up for that too.

It was only after I had been to a few of these applied neuroscience related workshops that I mentioned working for a law firm. The lecturers assumed I worked in criminal law and used the technology for some purpose in the criminal justice system. I said no, I’m a dogsbody in an intellectual property department. The room went abuzz. These workshops were for clinicians, researchers and postdocs. How had I been able to keep up, ask questions, and do the practical work if I was just an interloper?

Well, the professor asked me if this was a field that I wanted to get into, and I said yes. He asked me what subject my degree had been in (assuming perhaps it had been something law related). I said I had escaped school at 16 with a Pitman typing certificate and (luckily, if you could have seen my school) my life. So he started giving me advice as to where to go from there.

The first thing, he said, was I would need to complete an undergraduate degree, and to give the Open University another chance. “We will accept your application,” he said. I took that as a promise. I’d had so much resistance from tutors I’d spoken to on and off over the years, who seemed to think that my unfortunate school experiences counted for everything, whereas my life experiences and unusual cognitive profile should count for absolutely zip. When I stood in the 2001 general election, I was contacted by several university libraries who said they collected election material from all the parties in every constituency at election time. My election leaflets were worth having, but I as a person was not. I sent them the material, but with a cover letter stating as much. In fairness, I did receive a very supportive letter from the librarian at, I think it was Bristol, who said that he had managed to get accepted as a mature student. However, his encouragement was undone by the extreme rudeness of a tutor at one of the London universities that I spoke to, who basically said that I didn’t have a good enough brain. (I’ve seen my qEEG recording, several in fact, and I’m still looking for what could possibly be so wrong that made me an educational pariah. LOL.)

So I went to the Open University’s Camden Town campus and spoke to an advisor there. I told him about the workshops I’d been to, and the research (at least, some of the most basic, preliminary stuff) I was interested in doing. Well, he said, you wouldn’t get into that until Master’s level at the very least. I didn’t even know what subject area it belonged to. The advisor suggested I do a psychology degree. I applied, ignoring the Access modules and going straight for Year 1. To my surprise, I was accepted with no questions asked, and the government loans company approved my application, again with no questions asked. (The cynic in me tells me that now students have to pay £9,000 a year tuition, the university probably wants all the paying customers they can get.)

At another workshop, I told my professor guy that I didn’t really see the relevance of the course I was doing. The curriculum had a great emphasis on the social sciences, whereas what I was into was EEG, brain imaging, brain stimulation, and peak performance. So when he emailed me with a heads up that there was a cognitive neuroscience degree available at one of the London universities, and that another one of his mentees had landed a place there, I knew what I had to do. The course leader was really nice and said I could use my OU credits instead of A-Levels, although I would have to start again from Year 1 as it was a different curriculum. I was too cynical about admissions tutors by this point to think that I would actually get a place, but I applied anyway.

I am now about to go back for my second year, having completed the first year as a straight A student in every class. I think the course leader knows I am considerably ahead of the typical undergrad in many areas, and even have some fairly specialized knowledge, but considering the astonishing amount of resistance I have had to even getting a foot in the door, I’m not going to make waves at this point.

The title of this post, by the way, is entirely tongue-in-cheek. If you are seriously looking to get to university, at any age, I do not recommend the peripatetic and circuitous route I took.

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Mind, Reality and Open Lines – 28 December 2012.

An hour long radio interview with Chris Langan on Coast to Coast.

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This post details the exact process by which my formal education was pushed off the rails, whether by accident or design.

I started full-time UK state school in the early 1970s at the age of 4¼. By that age I was already a fluent reader. However, no provision was made in the Reception class to identify youngsters who could already read, or had already acquired other educational skills, and no attempt was made to provide an academic curriculum to those children who were ready to benefit from one. This may have been merely neglectful, but it got worse.

Whereas my grandmother had been teaching me before I reached school age to read, write, make things, cook, learn songs, make up stories and explore the neighbourhood, the Reception class, on the other hand, was virtually all unstructured play. That meant my attendance there was not only a complete waste of my time so far as learning opportunities went, but I had been dragged away from the one-to-one attention I had been receiving from my grandmother. In other words, not only was the school failing to teach, but it was placing me in a situation where I was being deprived of the teaching I had formerly been receiving (on my insistence, not my grandmother’s).

Being considerably ahead of my age peers in many areas, having a strongly visual-spatial learning style, having some unusual interests, as well as being an undiagnosed Aspie, meant that I did not fit in well to the school system. After all, I had absolutely nothing in common with my classmates except for the fact that we had all been born within the same 12 month period. This lack of accord with the environment in which I found myself was extremely stressful and I had frequent bouts of illness where I did not attend school.

Some teacher or school administrator must have noticed that I was not settling in well, and when I was six years old a standardized test was administered. I don’t know which test was in common use for young children in the early 1970s (probably some version of the Stanford-Binet), but I found out many years later that my class teacher had informed my mother that I had scored on the 15 year old level. (Can you believe that my parents didn’t even request their own copy of that score report?)

Identifying a highly precocious youngster is one thing; acting upon that knowledge appropriately is something else. I was not accelerated by the school (that was unheard of in the UK in the 1970s). I was not placed in a GT program or enrichment program (there were no such things, at least not in our education authority area). The class teacher herself made no attempt to design a tailored curriculum for me and assign me schoolwork that was on the level I would have needed in order to learn anything I didn’t already know. The done thing, it seemed, was to do nothing; whether out of pure ignorance as to the needs of the highly gifted, or perhaps out of some kind of misplaced political ideology.

All I learned on a daily basis was how to defend myself from bullies and their snickering hangers-on, to try and stay out of trouble with both teachers and classmates, to do the minimum (busy)work possible, and learn to cope with the long days of endless boredom by daydreaming the hours away. If I hadn’t been an insomniac, I probably would have fallen asleep.

My parents, in the meantime, were good little model citizens who prided themselves on following the rules, and bowed to the “wisdom” of authority. I asked my Dad one day if there was any way I could be taken out of school because it really wasn’t working for me, only to be told that wouldn’t be possible because then he and Mum would both have to go to prison. (I should be imprisoned so they wouldn’t be, right?) They were never going to advocate for my needs, or even seek advice about how I should best be educated, because it just would not have occurred to such conformists to do so. And the more intelligence, the better the kid is going to do in school, went their reasoning.

With that last gigantic assumption in mind, my folks and the teachers became puzzled as to why my advanced skills were not translating into a high level of school achievement. This was regarded by both as purely a discipline issue and was dealt with accordingly. What the teachers and my family apparently did not or could not grasp was that a six year old who was intellectually 15 was never going to want to endlessly repeat schoolwork they had already mastered and play puerile games with a class of young kids.

Rather than look at whether my educational and personal needs were being met in that environment, and tailoring it accordingly, I was pulled out for testing again about three years later to find out what was “wrong” with me. Since I scored at the ceiling of the WISC, according to the educational psychologist, I could not be “statemented”, i.e. receive a tailored educational plan for students with special educational needs. That sort of accommodation was only for those tested as having a learning disability, defined as being below average in some or all areas of intellectual functioning.

Again, unbelievably, my parents weren’t assertive enough to insist on having their own copy of that score report either. At no point was I ever told that I had been formally tested, or just how much above average I had actually scored. I know that there are various schools of thought with regard to whether the child should be told or not if they are gifted. However, I think that in my case being told that probably would have helped to recover some of my shredded self-esteem.

The effects of bullying are often downplayed by some people, but I think it is not possible to overstate their effect. I can think of individuals I have told who have said something like, “Well, if you had wanted to learn, couldn’t you?”, which betrays a staggering ignorance of the whole bully/target/educational performance dynamic. Imagine if you went to work each day not knowing if you were going to be injured, stolen from, taunted, shunned or inappropriately touched by your colleagues while your bosses turned a blind eye, who then made out it was all your fault when you complained? What do you think your performance on the job would be like after even a few weeks of this? And supposing you were told you couldn’t legally leave for another X years?

And of course, there was still no such thing as AS, since that wasn’t commonly known about until the mid-1990s. Yet again, I was sent back to class with no advice or appropriate support.

Despite these difficulties at school, I was an enthusiastic reader, and I would read anything at home for pleasure. I taught myself all kinds of skills, and my mother commented in despair that my self-chosen projects at home were of a much higher standard than anything I did in school. The bare facts were that the school curriculum did not allow the same sort of scope to learn and explore as my own projects at home did.

The gulf between the level of achievement from my self-taught interests and the level of achievement at school widened and widened. It reached the point where no teacher was going to believe that this demotivated individual could possibly be gifted.

By the time I reached secondary school, it was obvious that the classes students were assigned to for various subjects had more to do with their interest and motivation in following the curriculum than any objectively measured ability level.

I increasingly lost heart at the puerile work and endless repetition. What would then happen was I would get moved down a set for showing a lack of engagement in the lessons, and lose heart even more as a result. This was the exact opposite of what needed to happen to engage my motivation again, but teachers were stuck in the whole “didn’t finish first course, so no pudding” approach to schoolwork.

This however was the irony: I actually thought I wasn’t very bright because I probably really overcomplicated everything, thinking that there must be something to all this that I just wasn’t getting. When the teacher asked if anyone had any questions, I thought I must have completely missed the point of the lesson because I couldn’t think of any questions to ask. I realize now that the reason I had no questions about what had just been covered was because there wasn’t anything not to understand, and the sort of questions I would have asked given half a chance were well beyond the scope of the course curriculum.

My parents just clung increasingly hard to the idea that I was just coasting along because I was lazy. They didn’t see how hard I was trying just to stay afloat with the ceaseless educational neglect and sabotage, and interminable bullying. I resolved that all I had to do was somehow survive until statutory school leaving age, and then I could get out of there. I was in too much of a permanent state of shock to think much about what I would do after that.

Many of the classes I had been moved into for certain subjects were full of pint-sized ruffians who made it a full-time task for the teacher to maintain order, and very little actual teaching got attempted.

Because I had been placed in inappropriate classes for nearly everything, I wasn’t allowed to take my O-Levels in most subjects. Instead I was forced to take CSE’s, a lower-level exam designed for the less academic student. In many cases, this was almost a last minute decision by the school, meaning I was told I was being entered for a CSE exam when I had up to that point been following an O-Level curriculum. Since part of the marks for a CSE were coursework based, I simply hadn’t covered the required two years’ worth of work.

You might wonder why I didn’t simply get the top grade for the few exams that I was allowed to take, and prove myself that way. Well, the school and/or examining body had some strange bureaucratic system in place where the top grade was only available to the top-tier classes, and students in lower classes could only receive up to a certain grade, even if they wrote a very good final paper on the day. Some classes didn’t even enter an exam. All my outside reading and acquired general knowledge became rather irrelevant at this juncture.

I could not take A-Levels in sixth form as you had to have a certain number of O-Levels to enrol in those classes. My chances of taking A-Levels and going to University along with other members of my school year had been nuked by people who should have known better, long, long before I ever got to sixth form. Unlike they might do in certain other countries, we did not have some alternative standardized achievement test in the UK that I could have taken instead to get to college.

So I ended up taking a business course in sixth form and, having thus gone as far as it was possible to go with the school, I left, still aged only 16 since my birthday wasn’t until the summer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, upon seeking employment I had to contend with organizations and recruiters who thought the measly clutch of grades I had been allowed to achieve represented the best of my ability and knowledge. I was repeatedly directed toward applying for unskilled entry level positions that might have been suitable had that been the case, but were frustrating and confidence-destroying for me.

I ended up taking a job in a local shop, and poured myself into self-education, where I studied voraciously and covered a huge amount of material.

With that under my belt, plus all the skills I acquired from becoming an expert in study tech, I found myself in the situation where so far as the formal education system was concerned, I needed all these “remedial” type classes to get anywhere near college, yet on my own initiative and hard work I had placed myself on a level far beyond even many graduate students with my study skills and deep interests.

I am exploring various possible solutions with regard to my education and career that hopefully won’t take 4-7 years for a £30,000 undergraduate degree (and then who knows). There may well be alternatives to academia that are not nearly so expensive and time-consuming.

Perhaps by my writing up exactly how things went wrong, someone, somewhere, can learn something from all of this.

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The following email was sent to Ronald Altmann on 17 May 2012 regarding one of the qualification requirements for his Polymathiq Society.

While I would have been surprised to actually receive a substantive reply, there has been no acknowledgement that my message has been received, or even a Foxtrot Oscar type response.

The two most likely inferences are that the Society is defunct, and Ronald Altmann probably never was a real person but a screen alias of one of the members.

This was what I wrote in the email:

Ronald,
 
I think this is a very interesting project you’ve got going here, if indeed it is still up and running.
 
I would ask that you humour me in answering my question. On the page cited below, you request that prospective members submit “Five examples of original theories…”
 
I work in the field of intellectual property law, and my colleagues could have a field day if asked to define exactly what constitutes an “original theory”, and adjudicating whether a particular piece of writing constitutes an original theory.
 
How original is original? A patent attorney colleague and a trade mark lawyer colleague could not give a definitive answer, as it depends greatly upon what exactly the work in question is and the jurisdiction in which it is being submitted for publication. An engineering professor said he uses the “5% guideline”, i.e. “original” is if the concept is at least 5% removed from any other invention. A publisher stated that a work can be considered original if it is the author’s own work, i.e. no copypasting that could get either author or publisher sued later on!
 
There are clearly a lot of subjective opinions about what constitutes original work.
 
Supposing an author wrote a thesis on what he/she believed to be an original topic, but then later discovered that the same ideas had been discussed in another’s work? Where does one sensibly draw the line?
 
I would be most interested in how you would define “original theory” so that it clarifies the term to the satisfaction of myself and my legal beagle friends.
 
If you don’t answer I’ll have to assume Polymathiq Society is defunct.
 
Kind regards,
[my real name]

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http://winone.iqsociety.org/issues/WIN_ONE_08.pdf

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OK. I gave in. I joined Mensa.

Someone close to me had been mentioning it for years, but I was already a member of several lesser-known societies. Well, I had nothing to lose, so I decided to try it out and see what all the fuss was about.

The main attraction for me was probably the fact that they have special interest groups (SIGs) for just about every subject under the sun, and so once my membership pack came through, I started looking for some interesting SIGs to join.

Of course, the Mind Explorers SIG was one that jumped out and caught my eye straight away. But then I noticed this one, called Phoenix, whose stated purpose was:

“Being accepted by Mensa reveals why we are called deviants and misfits and were squashed as children for being bright.  We encourage each other to ignore ageism and help each other to find that we are not alone in our experiences of repression and to gain confidence in our abilities.”

That seemed pretty spot-on to me! The only problem was, the group was suspended.

When I sought to enquire as to why, I was informed that there was no one currently running it, and the advertisement for a new volunteer had attracted no response. So I decided to do something about it: I am now the new “Phoenix SIGSec”.

Let’s see where this project goes.

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