No place for a child

September 17, 1999

David Blunkett wants to fast-track bright school students, but is university the right place for a 14-year-old, asks Jennie Bristow.

One of the less endearing characters in the quirky US comedy Ally McBeal is a child prodigy lawyer. Aged ten, he cries whenever a case does not go his way.

I am not suggesting child geniuses should be barred from lecture theatres to prevent a potential tantrum (18-year-olds can do this just as noisily). But as Ally McBeal's kiddy attorney shows, there are problems with putting a child in an adult environment - whether it be a law firm or a university.

Alexander Faludy made the headlines last year when, aged 14, he became the youngest Cambridge undergraduate since William Pitt the Younger. A future rival could be his sister: in August, 12-year-old Emily Faludy achieved an A grade in GCSE English literature. Seven-year-old Nirav Gathani became the youngest student to pass a higher level GCSE, with a grade B in information systems, and 11-year-old violinist Chloe Hanslip came away with two A* grades.

Surprising results? Not for the government. Education secretary David Blunkett pre-empted these children's early fame when he announced that in future 25,000 pupils a year should take their exams early under an "accelerated learning" programme, which could lead to one pupil in 20 passing the GCSE by the age of 14. This is a big shift - particularly given that out of half a million students taking their GCSEs in 1998, only 2,350 pupils sat exams early.

Providing a fast track for brainy youngsters is no longer seen as an anomaly. In 1997, institutions admitted 100 more 16-year-olds to university through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service than in 1995. But is university a place for children, however good their results?

It is true that bright school students are not challenged enough. A-level and GCSE results go up every year, to meet the accusation that standards are falling. No doubt many more than 25,000 of Blunkett's "gifted students" could take a few GCSEs early and get reasonable grades. But this is a problem with secondary school education and the limited way it stretches pupils' minds. To pack under-18s off to university for more education simply avoids improving the quality of the education they receive at school.

In terms of intellectual rigour and personal growth, universities should be places for adults. You do not go to university for more of what you studied at school, or even just to study something different. You go to develop your mind and your powers of analysis, to think and learn in a different way, to be under the kind of mental pressure you have never been under before. Don't you?

Now the boundaries have been so blurred it is almost impossible to tell where secondary education ends and higher education begins. Community colleges are moving into the degree market, meshing further education with the higher education on offer at the local university. Universities that provide "Year 0" courses for people without A-level qualifications are taking over responsibilities previously held by providers of secondary education. Lecturers are being taught to teach. Intellectually, the learning process of secondary and higher education is becoming one and the same thing. This does not mean schools are generating the new ideas and original research once provided by academia. It means that higher education is providing an education fit for children - and only children.

What about personal development? It stands to reason that a bright 15-year-old with protective parents will not gain much "personal growth" if he ends up going to the local university. But even if he or she is allowed to fly the nest, the last neighbour students need in their hall of residence is a child.

Universities are already unreasonably jumpy about the safety and welfare of their students. From the plethora of safety measures on campus to students' union advice guides and counsellors, 18-year-olds are finding their first leap into independence too cushioned. Adult students are seen to be as vulnerable and irresponsible as kids. And that is without a living, breathing, 14-year old excuse for such mothering sitting in the college bar.

The younger a university's intake becomes, the more aggressively it will model itself on the atmosphere of school. Emotional support staff will outnumber academics overnight, while homesickness will become grounds for special dispensation in exams.

This is why schools should be for kids and universities for adults. If this distinction goes, society will be failing many more students than a few gifted children.

Jennie Bristow is a recent graduate of Sussex University.

* Is university the right place for gifted children to be educated? Email us on soapbox@thesis.co.uk

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