Alexander Faludy, 14, is the latest prodigy to enter university early. For many others, that fast track has led only to disaster. Harriet Swain meets academics seeking safer ways to teach gifted children
Alexander Faludy leads a settled life. On weekdays he dons corduroy trousers, tweedy jacket, waistcoat and tie and works away at his twin passions of theology and history of art. He may exchange ideas with friends who drop by or look in on a lesson taking place in his institution,if the subject interests him. In winter he swims; in summer he plays tennis.
At weekends he may visit Dorchester to view the architecture and wander around the county museum, which, he says, "has a surprisingly good art collection for a provincial gallery". A committed Christian, he is involved in the local abbey and keeps in regular contact with his parents, speaking to them every day by telephone. It is a life like that of many academics, except that Alexander only starts his first degree at Cambridge University next October. Oh, and he's only 14.
It is not always easy to remember this. Tall and gangly, with big black glasses and a half-broken voice, he still looks like a schoolboy. But his poise, manner and vocabulary are those of someone three times his age.
Alexander is not the only teenager to enter university early. Last year, institutions admitted 472 16-year-olds through the University and Colleges Admissions Service. In 1996 the number was 382 16-year-olds and two 15-year-olds; in 1995, one 14-year-old, eight 15-year-olds and 333 16-year-olds.
The scant evidence on how accelerated undergraduates cope with university does not look good. For many, the fast track appears to lead to social deviance, mental breakdowns and burned-out intellects. Take Adam Dent, who at 14 went to St Hugh's College, Oxford, to read chemistry. Many thought he drank too much. He eventually left after allegations of sexual misbehaviour following an Oxford University Conservative Association drinks party. He chose to finish his degree at home through the Open University.
Or the boy feted by the press as a prodigy who went to a top university at the age of 16 and ended up having a nervous breakdown within a year. Peter Carey, director of the National Association for Gifted Children, was involved in the latter case. He strongly opposes sending young teenagers to university. "There was no adequate support (for that boy) except for us and a good GP, who wasn't a university GP," he says. "The boy's view is that he should never have been accepted. "
But if full-time undergraduate life suits few under-16s, how can gifted children be stretched academically? This is the question exercising a working group set up by a quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to see what facilities schools and colleges provide for gifted children and what more can be done. Interim findings are due next month.
The worry is that the government's increasing emphasis on helping those with educational problems may cause teachers to neglect children with extraordinary abilities. Members of the working group recognise that, although universities can teach talented children well, they rarely offer those children the social and emotional support they need. The group wants to find ways in which these children can study subjects in depth while remaining with their peers.
One answer is via Open University courses, which allow youngsters to live at home and study degree-level work using computer packages and postal correspondence. Another is to study at a local university, again enabling youngsters to live at home and keep in touch with friends their own age.
Among the projects being scrutinised by the QCA group is a pilot scheme in Newcastle, where, for the past three years, ten talented sixth-form mathematicians at Monkseaton Community High School have taken programmes within Open University maths degrees. This year, for the first time, ten others have tried a level-one science course, and others have been offered the chance to take a business studies course at the nearby University of Sunderland and a three-year degree plus MA with the University of Northumbria at Newcastle.
School head Paul Kelly, who pioneered the OU scheme and sits on the QCA working group, says: "It gives them a gradual introduction to higher education so they do not have to adjust to things like going into student bars while getting used to an entirely different way of working." Monkseaton pupils are treated like other Open University students except that they attend the annual OU residential school together. Some have gone on to study maths at other universities, where one or two started directly in the second year.
Peter Cattermole, head of science at Winchester College and a member of the QCA working group, says every effort should be made to stop people going to university too young: "They can so easily fall apart. Universities don't have the mechanisms to deal with the Ruth Lawrences of this world."
He suggests that academic high-fliers may be better off going straight into the second year of a university course, after studying to first-year degree level at school. He also recommends setting up centres of excellence where gifted youngsters can grow up normally while their talents are stretched.
Susan Stobbs, admissions tutor at Cambridge University and another member of the working group, says: "I feel passionately that we want to do something in schools because some of the most able are marking time in a way that's frustrating." She too advises against children going to university. "University is not just about learning degree-level work but about experiencing other things. They can miss out on a lot, although of course there are always exceptions."
One is Alexander Faludy, who will be the youngest person to enter Cambridge this century. This would be achievement enough for some, but he also suffers from such severe dyslexia that much of his writing is illegible. "My eyes don't focus properly, and I have very little movement control," says Alexander, who works by listening to tapes of his books and following the words on the page.
He was not diagnosed as dyslexic until he was seven.His first school - the private day school where his father teaches English - found it difficult to handle. The year he gained a grade B in English GCSE, taken in his spare time, he was ranked 21 out of 22 for English in his class. "The school wasn't supportive," he says. "I was bullied a great deal, and they weren't willing to let me do a degree within the timetable. My only option was to leave." Aged 11, he spent eight months out of school, abandoning maths and science altogether and instead studying an arts foundation course with the Open University, which concentrated on an interdisciplinary approach to the mid-Victorian era. "I have never been pushed, and my parents have always responded to my needs and whatever I asked them to help me with," he says.
He is now at Milton Abbey, a small boarding school in Dorset, where he continues his Open University degree work while mixing with boys his own age. He dictates his essays onto tape and his father transcribes them. "My parents and I felt that I needed to be in an environment where I could develop socially and emotionally rather than just intellectually," he says.
Next stop is Peterhouse College, Cambridge to read theology and art history. He has been fascinated by the place since seeing Porterhouse Blue on television. One visit and he was hooked -he did not want to wait until he was 18.
Alexander does not expect to spend the entire time at Cambridge locked in his study, he wants to socialise too. "I have never mixed terribly well with people of my own age anyway," he says. "Most of my friends are two or three years or decades older than me."
His ambition is to go on to postgraduate study and then work as an academic, perhaps in a museum or gallery. It will be interesting to see whether academic life as an adult lives up to expectations.