Do we expect enough?

The 11-year-old with A-levels; the seven-year-old who is confidently studying for her GCSE; these are normal children, says a teacher of computing. Could his experience be more widely applied in schools? Diana Hinds reports
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The Independent Online
Dr Ronald Ryde, a computer lecturer, first began to change his ideas about children's capabilities when a neighbour asked him, about 15 years ago, if he would do some computer work with her sons. The boys, who were still at primary school, soon wanted to do O-level computer studies. At first Dr Ryde said no; they were too young. But when they persisted, he gave in - and they passed the exam at the age of 11.

Now 65, Dr Ryde, who retired as head of business studies from the former North London Polytechnic 14 years ago, runs computer courses for children from his home in Northwood, north-west London. Children as young as eight have achieved GCSEs in computing.This summer a seven-year-old girl from his class will sit GCSE computing. Among older pupils, numerous 11-to- 16-year-olds have passed the A-level.

"I sincerely believe that children are capable of making great academic strides if they are motivated," says Dr Ryde. "Too often they are not being motivated at school, and the mental resources of the country are being wasted. The children we teach are an example of what the rest of the country could be doing.

"In my opinion, most children should be able to obtain all their GCSEs by 12 or 13 years of age and their A-levels by 14, and pass those degrees which involve pure academic studies by 17 or even younger. I would very much like to see a children's university."

These may seem, on first acquaintance, to be the views of an eccentric, a computer maverick flushed by his undeniable successes with a clutch of bright children, all probably pushed on by their parents. Children need to be children, one may retort. And what is the point of flogging them through exams several years ahead of their peers, and messing up the way the school system operates?

But, looked at another way, if it is true that children who are highly motivated achieve much more than is generally expected, might there not be a gain here for the children? Might they not find their schooling more exciting and enjoyable - instead of moaning, as so many do, about how boring it is - if they were enabled to find a subject, or subjects, that they were really interested in, and then take off in that subject?

Parents of Dr Ryde's pupils - who come from state and independent schools all over the London area, 70 per cent of them from Asian backgrounds - emphasise how much the computer courses have helped with other aspects of school work, giving their children the confidence to do well in other areas.

Alp Bora Toker, 12, passed computer studies A-level last year at the Northwood Computer Tutorial Centre after a nine-month course. "We didn't start this course with the aim of his doing an A-level," explains his father. "But he was already very much involved with computers, and we wanted him to have some formal lessons, since the school was hopelessly behind. Doing the course has helped with his school work, and last year, for the first time, he got an academic prize."

"I didn't tell my friends I was doing the A-level, in case I didn't pass," says Alp, who attends an independent boys' school in north London. "When I did pass, they said, `did you cheat?' - but I think it has made them treat me slightly better. The course has helped me get organised, and I can organise my time better now."

Neil Patel, 13, is preparing for A-level computer studies this year. "He was average at school before," says his father. "Now he has got three or four merit certificates in maths. He is working out his time better, and finds other things easier."

Sohail Siddiqui says his two daughters are not only getting high marks in maths and languages since taking GCSEs in computing at 11, but have also both got into the top tennis team. "I think it's to do with the way Dr Ryde prepared them - the mental attitude is totally different."

Clearly, support and encouragement at home are vital if these children are going to succeed. But although the lessons take up about four hours a week - at weekends, or after school - and there is homework, too, their parents deny that the courses put too much pressure on their children, since they were already, they claim, spending a great deal of time on computers at home. Several parents add that they believe it is important for their children to remain with their own age group at school, and they would not wish them to be moving so far ahead in every subject.

Computers excite children and, in this respect, the subject lends itself to achievement at an early age. "But there's nothing special about computers," says Dr Ryde's son Michael, a computer consultant, who helps run the courses. We're not just teaching computing, we're teaching children how to learn, how to spell, how to go about an exam. It's about having the courage to start teaching them at a younger age. When they're younger, if you tell them something they remember it. I find that after about 14, they are slower to pick up on things."

If motivation is one of the keys to early achievement, another - for those not on private courses - is how flexible a school can be in allowing children to proceed at a different pace from that of their peers. Independent schools, with smaller classes, more teachers and more resources, have the advantage here.

Thirteen-year-old Alexander Faludy, for example, is an exceptionally intelligent but acutely dyslexic student at a small independent school in Dorset, where he is currently studying for an Open University degree in English, while still pursuing non-academic subjects with his own age group. Alexander is unable to write his own essays either by hand or on computer, but given the opportunity to record them on tape, his intelligence and interest in the subject have enabled him to advance very rapidly.

Richard Dell, head teacher at Newton Prep, in Battersea, south London, also believes in the importance of accommodating children who want to go at a faster rate in some subjects, and has had a four-year-old working alongside nine-year-olds in the science laboratories. If a bright, interested child is not adequately stretched, he says, behavioural problems are the likely result.

Maths and science tend to be the subjects where a child will accelerate, as opposed to a subject such as English, where they need to get a bit more experience of life under their belt. But Mr Dell does not hold with putting children in for GCSEs ahead of time, and prefers to find ways of stretching them outside the GCSE curriculum. "Some of them could do GCSEs, but you have to ask yourself, is it necessary? What purpose does it serve, since these children are not about to move through the system and on to university? I think it is better to go beyond the exam, without actually doing it."

In the state sector, the conventional approach is for each age cohort to move over the same hurdles at, approximately, the same time; this is what suits the system best, at least, and the national curriculum has strengthened rather than challenged this approach.

But Dr David Winkley, head teacher of Grove Primary school in Birmingham, who elsewhere on this page argues that the system needs to be radically overhauled, believes that much children's talent is going to waste. His own experience with inner-city children gives the lie to those who would dismiss opportunities for early achievement as irrelevant to all except a very few "gifted" children: at Grove School, a group of 30 10-year-olds has been studying atomic physics with a professional atomic physicist, and working to the level of first-year undergraduates.

"I was as surprised as he was, at first," says Dr Winkley.

With the help of a talented dance teacher, Grove School pupils have also performed at a much higher level than often expected in dance. In maths, four 11-year-olds were put in for GCSE last year, gained top grades, and, with the support of their secondary school, are now working towards A-level. Music and Punjabi are other areas in which Dr Winkley hopes able pupils can be accelerated.

"There are great advantages for the children in getting ahead, and we have a responsibility to help make this possible," he says.

This responsibility begins with the parents. Research now shows that the brain develops most rapidly between birth and three years, and slows down after the age of seven. Children who are stimulated in their early years arrive at school with a head start, but in children who are neglected or traumatised, these neurological pathways fail to grow.

"I can envisage a post-millennium, utopian scenario where children come to school at three with their minds excited and ready to absorb learning," says Dr Winkley. "Schools will assess them, and set them off on individual programmes which will promote their development as quickly as possible. Schools will have more access to specialists, teachers will be more like managers of learning."

Professor Peter Mortimore, director of the Institute of Education in London, agrees that in the next century, as computer technology becomes cheaper, schools will probably move to more individually-based learning programmes, where children can forge on at their own pace - rather as they do now when learning an instrument, where the grades are not age- related.

But under the present system, he says, there can be problems in rushing children on. "It's fine to accelerate children when the motivation is there. But the really critical question is, what happens afterwards? If, after their fantastic, accelerated experience, they then have to drop back, that can be very demotivating".