The Mozart Problem: Educating Exceptional Children

He was playing the harpsichord and the violin at the age of five, and writing little pieces of music.*


Mozart’s father was a musician and realised Wolfgang was exceptional. Leopold home schooled his son, constantly expanding his musical frontiers. He monetised his son’s genius and when Wolfgang was six they moved to Vienna looking for patronage. The principal court composer Christoph Wagenseil declared, “You are a real musician!”** Mozart wasn’t burdened by an 18th century version of the National Curriculum and his genius flourished.


The 2011 UK census identified 3,135,711 children in the 5-9 years old cohort. Using an arbitrary cut-off point of 0.01% to identify children likely to have exceptional abilities, we’re left with 313 children. These exceptional children are distributed across 20,832 primary schools.*** This offers an insight into the Mozart problem. 313 children is a tiny cohort. Primary schools can go for decades without seeing an exceptional child. This leaves them floundering when they do encounter one.

Because primary schools are inexperienced in educating exceptional children, they’re challenged. Ruth Lawrence was home schooled. She was awarded her Ph.D in mathematics, at Oxford University, as an 18 year old. Ruth became a doctor of mathematics whilst her cohort were sitting university entrance A-levels. John Stuart Mill’s father set impossible standards for his exceptional son, But my father, in all his teaching, demanded of me not only the utmost that I could do, but much that I could by no possibility have done.**** At least Leopold Mozart pushed very hard but within the boundaries of possibility.

Ruth’s father took decisive action because he had the ability to, as did Leopold Mozart. But exceptional children don’t always have talented parents. The conundrum is this: if schools and parents have exceptional children but can’t cope, what happens then?

It isn’t hard to imagine an exceptional six year old regarding year one mathematics with contempt. Suppose the teacher lacks the confidence to declare, like Wagenseil of the six year old Mozart, that this child is a genius. What happens next? Obviously it’s hypothetical but the frustrations of exceptional children are well known. Many are regarded as nuisances. Is it feasible for a primary school to provide and teach year eleven work to a six year old? Children with exceptional performative talent gain recognition readily: their talent is visible. Intellectual talent is more challenging. Exceptional children criticise their teachers, are bored and disruptive, day-dream, and disrespect entire activities.

Alan Turing’s school was Sherbourne and he was a very difficult student, Alan always preferred his own methods to those supplied by the text book.”***** Alan’s attitude made teaching a class very difficult. He was sufficiently ‘odd’ for allowances to be made but he attended a private school so he was a ’customer’ as it were.

Home schooled children are one solution if, and only if, parents appreciate it’s a full time job and they’ve sufficient intellect to cope with a turbo-charged mind. They must also be mature enough to realise that their child may say that they’ve nothing left to offer intellectually.

The 0.01% of British children who are exceptional have a very hard time of it. They’re a tiny cohort with special needs. Private education through personal tutors, specialist schools or home schooling appears to be the only viable solution but even that’s flawed as Ruth Lawrence found out. The Mozart problem is very challenging and there are no quick-fixes.

Addendum: The Sorites Paradox

The Sorites Paradox is classically expressed using the concept of a pile of sand. One grain at a time is removed from the pile and eventually it no longer exists: but when? Likewise with exceptional children. The ‘pile’ is 5% of all children in a cohort. The 5% cohort of children are very clever but not exceptional. However as children are removed, the concept moves towards exceptional: but when? The entirely arbitrary 0.01% was used in this blog to highlight the challenge.




*** About 1.5% of primary schools would see one if there was a statistically average distribution.

**** Mill’s father saw John was exceptional and pushed him to breaking point

***** Alan spent a great deal of time in the sixth form studying Einstein in the original and working through his equations. The quote is from Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: an enigma p 43


For Hayden and Mozart see “I have often been flattered by my friends with having some genius, but he was much my superior.

For the 2011 UK Census see,aged%2060%20years%20and%20over

For the Gifted and Talented programme see

For the number of primary schools see

For Ruth Lawrence see See also Magnus Carlsen, a chess grandmaster at 13 years old, and Pele, the footballer, who played for Brazil at 16

For J S Mill’s Autobiography go to Gutenberg Project for a free download

For sample questions that children looking to enter the Maths Olympics must do see

For the identification of suitable students Warwick University focus on 5% as the benchmark access point, which is 500 times more than my arbitrary figure.

For the frustrated gifted child see This is a quick simplistic guide but serves to illustrate the principal point.

For Turing’s biography see Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: an enigma The film The Imitation Game was based on this book

For an interesting mini-biography of a four and half year old girl see

For the Sorites Paradox see

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