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The Independent Online
This week a 12-year-old girl was awarded a place to study at St Hilda's College, Oxford University, starting this autumn, on the basis of her A grade at A-level in further maths.

She has matched the achievement of Ruth Lawrence, the child prodigy who also went to Oxford to study maths at 12 and graduated with a first two years later.

But, unlike Ruth Lawrence, this child has a 10-year-old brother who also did well in his maths and further maths A-levels. The family is reported to be contacting Oxford colleges to see whether any of them will take him, too. Other universities have, apparently, already offered him a place.

The children are two of five and the whole family is planning to move to Oxford so that they can all stay together while the Oxford studies of one, or perhaps two, of their number get under way.

But I have to ask - what 12-year-old - or ten- or six-year-old - wakes up in the morning and says, "Hey, I'd like to study statistics/ mechanics/ applied maths?" It's conceivable that a child may spontaneously acquire a talent for horse-riding or tennis - but maths?

Someone has to be there with the syllabus, course work, text books. And that someone is too often Daddy. It is significant that these prodigies are frequently girls. But an intelligent little girl, deeply attached to her father, will, one suspects, find her joy not in mathematics but in his smile and approval.

It is the task of a parent to respond to all aspects of their child's development: physical, intellectual, social, psychological, spiritual. Unfortunately, the strands of a child's personality do not always progress at the same rate, like the little girl I knew who at nine years old was 5ft 5in tall, with breasts and periods. By the time she was 16, however, the rest of her had caught up and, thanks to wise parents, she survived unscathed.

Super-clever Timothy was not so lucky. Academically he was streets ahead of his peers, but socially he was a total baby. His parents demanded that he go up two grades. The school advised against this, pointing out that if Timothy was bored, he wasn't half as bored as his less able friends and that he desperately needed - and wanted - their company. The parents insisted that Timothy be pushed on. His maths improved, but his new, older classmates didn't want to know this immature little boy and he lost many of his old friends now that he no longer studied with them. He became demotivated, and by 18 had dropped out of academic life completely.

My own son is about to go to Oxford University in September. Pretty well the first words in his freshers' booklet are: "Dump Mum and Dad." And whilst it breaks my heart, I know that this is what it's all about: that when my son says goodbye, I have succeeded. How utterly grotesque if I were to follow him about the campus as did Ruth Lawrence's dad. She is now reported as teaching at an American university - and her dad is still with her. So not only is she not at the cutting edge of her subject, but apparently she still has not taken that one essential step to adulthood.

The clever child is traditionally depicted as a nerd with specs, absorbed in history. As the parent of two clever children I can say that this picture is completely inaccurate. A clever child is interested in everything. Their brains whiz away at a rate of knots, avidly swallowing up the entire world. My 16-year-old daughter loves poetry, Latin and Mozart. She also loves the Beatles, blue nail polish, Jilly Cooper and fashion. There was a time when my son read the Beano and The Independent at breakfast.

Children develop in fits and starts and require a rich and varied diet of experiences to arrive at adulthood.

One therefore wonders whose interests are being served by pushing a 12- year-old child into university. Whose ambitions are being fulfilled? Certainly not those of the child, who is simultaneously robbed of both childhood and student life

The writer teaches to A-level.

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