Let me in, I'm a genius

Adam Spencer may be a model A-level pupil, but no university will offer him a place, because he's only 13. Is he, or any other child prodigy, ready to make the leap into the realities of student life?
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The Independent Online

Like thousands of youngsters around the country, Adam Spencer will have just received his A-level results. He is expected to have gained a clutch of As and Bs, which would secure any pupil a place at university. But not Adam. At the age of 13, no one wants him. Now, his parents are even considering moving to another EU country that would.

There's no doubt about his academic abilities. At the age of 18 months he began to recite the alphabet. He was nine when he took his first GCSE, achieving a grade A in maths, a subject he had studied at home with his father. At 10, he became the second-youngest pupil to pass an A-level, after attending adult-education classes. Attending a community college in Bedfordshire, he gained top grades in six more GCSEs in 2001. In his AS-levels last year, he achieved two As, a B and a C.

He now wants to do a degree in biochemistry. His parents, Paul and Marlise, had planned to move from their home in Arlesey, Bedfordshire, to be near the university of Adam's choice so that he could live with them while he studied. Paul, an antiques dealer, says: "He is more advanced than many 18-year-olds, and would stagnate if we kept him at secondary school. I've rung the universities but they say he's too young. He breaks all the Government's targets for achievement, yet he is shunned."

Adam was interviewed last year by St Peter's College, Oxford, but was turned down. Paul says that the issue of having to screen staff in accordance with child-safety guidelines cropped up in conversations with the university. "We've now approached seven universities, and it has been the same story every time. They've all wanted to help, but the hindrance in each case has been these new child-safety laws. That's been the main stumbling-block. I spoke to Oxford University only a few days ago, and they mentioned that it would be a problem," says Paul. "It's not that Adam wouldn't be able to integrate with older students, he's been studying with people five years older than him for several years now. We're determined that he'll get on the course he wants at a good university. As we speak, he's on the internet looking for courses."

However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills says that there has been no change in their guidelines, which, for years, have strongly recommended that staff in educational institutions with children under 18 should have "List 99" checks and criminal-record checks. List 99 specifies those barred or restricted from working in the education sector for either criminal offences or allegations. In March 2002, the Government introduced the Criminal Records Bureau to centralise checking. Since 1 July 2003, the cost of a standard check has gone up by £12, to £24. The cost is usually borne by the teacher, but can be met by the employer.

A spokeswoman for the department adds: "It's for the universities to decide at which age they accept students. We do give strong guidance that there should be vetting in circumstances such as a 13-year-old. However, it's up to universities to interpret the guidance and consider the costs."

With child-safety issues uppermost in people's minds these days, clearly many universities, which are legally obliged to protect the welfare and safety of students, agree that staff who teach children should be vetted. One university, which declined to take Adam, said it would be a huge undertaking to get all the staff who would come into contact with him through the checking procedure.

A spokeswoman for Universities UK, the body that represents vice-chancellors, says that admission policies vary between universities, and they took into account a wide range of factors when considering any application. "These could include outside interests, potential to benefit fully from the course and from university life, as well as to be an effective member of the university community. When the applicant is very young, the maturity needed to study the subject would be a further factor."

But many question the wisdom of child prodigies attending university altogether. Ruth Lawrence, who sat the entrance exam for Oxford University at the age of 10, took up her place to study maths at St Hugh's College at 12. Her father Harry came with her, and the pair became a familiar sight on the streets, pedalling between lectures on their tandem. Many saw their mode of transport as a metaphor for Ruth's lack of freedom to choose her own path in life.

She had been tutored at home by her father from an early age, passing maths O- level at the age of eight, and A-level maths the following year. She rarely played with other children. But if the academic pressure on her was intense, so was the media scrutiny. She was repeatedly cast as a socially inept loner, whose only friend was her father. At 13, she achieved a first-class honours degree, followed, four years later, by a PhD. Research posts at Harvard University, and in Paris and Michigan followed. So, however, did her father.

In 1997, the cracks started to show. Ruth moved to Jerusalem to teach maths at the Hebrew University, for once without her shadow. Stories soon circulated in the press of her conversion to Orthodox Judaism, her marriage to a Dr Ariyeh Naimark, a mathematician more than twice her age, and her estrangement from her father. But she is now a successful academic and mother-of-two, and appears to have repaired her relationship with her father.

For Sufiah Yusof, who started her maths degree at St Hilda's College, Oxford at the age of 13, the cracks showed up much earlier. In 2000, she ran away from the university the day after her final exam of the year. After two weeks in hiding, she was found by police in Bournemouth. She did not want to go home, asking her parents in an e-mail: "Has it ever crossed your mind that the reason I left home was because I've finally had enough of 15 years of physical and emotional abuse?" Her parents claimed that she had been abducted and brainwashed. She was placed with a foster family. Last year, she returned to study at the university.

Professor Joan Freeman, Britain's best-known expert in the field, and author of Gifted Children Grown Up, says that universities are certainly not the right place for gifted children. "I don't know what Adam Spencer's parents think they are getting by their son going to university at 13. I don't care how emotionally mature he is at 13, he is still 13. Would an 18-year-old starting at university want to hang around with a 13-year-old? The answer, to me, is no. It is inevitable that he would lose out on what should be a maturing experience. He couldn't even go to the bar, where all the social life takes place. How could he be a normal student?"

"I'm sure he could cope academically, Professor Freeman continues, "but what is the point in coping if there are so many other things in life that could add to the quality and richness of his life? He could go to a boarding school and specialise in something. He could go to an American school to get a different kind of experience. There is a whole world outside maths."

She believes that university could have a serious effect on his personal development. "The two most famous cases, Ruth Lawrence and Sufiah Yusof, say that it was very damaging. Neither wanted to talk to the father who insisted that their daughter went there very early. It damages children because they they don't develop natural social skills with their peers."

Since 1974, Professor Freeman has been doing a follow-up study of gifted children, some of whom went to university early. "They were very unhappy, they couldn't adapt. Everybody is sophisticated compared with you. Having decent relationships is an essential part of being a fulfilled person."

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), of which Sufiah Yusof was a member, also counsels against sending child prodigies to university. "Just because a child is intellectually gifted, it doesn't mean that developmentally, socially and emotionally they are ready to move in different circles," says Lori Ferguson, an educational psychologist and consultant for the association. "What we do advocate is enrichment for children within their local education authority. We would rather see things such as distance learning, Open University courses, or individual tuition where a university professional might come into the school to work with the student."

One NAGC member, for example, became the youngest person to receive an OU maths degree. He started at 10, combining it with his school work, and received it at 17. He now works as a computer programmer.

Bob Boucher, vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, says that he believes that in general, universities are not the right places for children. But, he adds: "There do seem to be some exceptional children who have the capacity to succeed in that environment. They do, however, seem to need rather special attention because, plainly, a 13-year-old doesn't fit very easily into the environment of 18- to 21-year-olds.

"So many students take a year out, and there is evidence to show that that results in improvements in degree results. It's hard to imagine that a 13-year-old could not benefit from at least a year, maybe two, in gaining some other experience to understand the world a bit better. One does wonder whether there aren't very ambitious parents who are helping the process along."

Perhaps the universities that have rejected Adam have done him an enormous favour. Whether he's old enough to understand that is, of course, another question.

Additional reporting by Clare Rudebeck

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