Monday, 26 July 2010

Why childhood must come before university

Why childhood must come before university

This former child prodigy advises 13-year-old genius Adam Spencer to put fun before study

LIKE Adam Spencer, the 13-year-old prodigy who has just passed his A levels and wants to go to Cambridge, I had a somewhat unorthodox school career. Though not quite as ahead of my peers as he was, I took my first O levels at 11 and my first A level at 14. But, thank goodness, I didn’t go to university until I was old enough to appreciate it. My strong advice to Adam is: don’t even think of going to Cambridge until you are 18. Between now and then, learn another language, travel the world, play in a band or discover a new sport. Whatever you do, get a life, and make the most of it.

It is bad enough being much younger than your classmates at school. You never really fit in socially, and you run the risk of being painfully isolated. Even if the academic concepts seem easy, the sheer burden of homework, coursework and revision, not to speak of the stress of exams, weighs heavily upon young shoulders. An 11-year-old is still of an age to want to play, to feel carefree at least some of the time. Those boons of late childhood vanish when he is also expected to revise for and pass a slew of GSCEs or A levels.

Adam will already have experienced these problems. After all, he passed his first GCSE, in maths, at nine (having studied at home with his father) and his first A level at ten, after attending adult education classes. The rest he took at secondary school, and now he wants to read biochemistry at Cambridge. His parents say he is well able to cope with the academic demands of a degree. But they make no public mention of his happiness, friendships, hobbies or emotional maturity.

Instead, they are railing against new child protection legislation, which would force a university to screen any adults who would come into contact with a boy as young as Adam. The universities are understandably reluctant to go through these cumbersome and expensive procedures for the sake of just one student. Adam’s parents are threatening to move elsewhere in the EU to find a university that will accept him. They should be rejoicing that the new regulations give their son some breathing space in which to develop a more rounded personality before going to university at an age at which he will appreciate it more.

Just because a child prodigy can cope with undergraduate-level work does not mean that he should. University is not just about academic pursuits. It is about the four Fs: friendship and fun and finding yourself. It is about learning to be an independent adult away from your parents. It is absolutely no place for a 13, 14 or 15-year-old. Even if they can cope with the advanced biochemistry, they won’t be able to enjoy all the added delights of student life. In fact, they will feel positively alienated.

Gifted children who go to university very young almost always end up regretting it. Consider the examples of Ruth Lawrence and Sufiah Yusof. Lawrence, who famously went to Oxford at 12, heavily chaperoned by her father, was clearly bruised by the experience. She now intends to bring up her own son quite differently. “I want Yehuda to develop in a natural way,” she says. “There won’t be any forcing, no attempt to push him faster than he wants to go. I don’t want him to be ‘different’.”

And how different that will be from Lawrence’s own upbringing. She and her sister were not allowed friends as children, were tutored to within an inch of their sanity and were forced to concentrate on their talents to the exclusion of all else. Their father’s obsession with pushing Ruth cost him his marriage and left him little time for his other daughter. Eventually Ruth too cut him off, though they have since been reconciled. She had to move to another country and convert to another religion to find peace with herself.

The story of Yusof is just as sad. Remember how she vanished to become a waitress in Bournemouth the day after taking her Oxford finals at the age of 15? It was an escape that she had planned for years, counting off the days on a calendar. In an e-mail to her pushy father, she complained of “hellish” pressure and said: “I’ve finally had enough of 15 years of physical and emotional abuse.” Afterwards, she explained poignantly: “I compared myself with other 13-year-olds and with 18-year-olds at Oxford. They had stable homes and nice parents and control of their lives — and I didn’t.”

What a tragic tale that is — and what a waste of what could have been a magical three years at Oxford. If Adam Spencer goes to university next term, he won’t find a girlfriend, he won’t take part in a student production, he won’t find himself talking long into the night with like-minded friends, fuelled by coffee, drink or other mind-altering substances. While his peers are partying, he will be tucked up in bed after another evening spent poring over his biochemistry textbooks at the kitchen table, supervised by his parents. What sort of life is that?


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