They gain very little in the long term, but lose out on the fun of childhood

Joan Freeman, child psychologist, found that most prodigies do not go on to excel as adults
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The Independent Online

This year brings a record crop of seriously advanced primary-school children. Two six-year-olds, a boy and a girl, took just nine months studying information technology to sweep up grade C GCSEs. Others, just a little older, achieved high scores in music, Gujarati and maths.

This year brings a record crop of seriously advanced primary-school children. Two six-year-olds, a boy and a girl, took just nine months studying information technology to sweep up grade C GCSEs. Others, just a little older, achieved high scores in music, Gujarati and maths.

These few children have shone in examinations designed for youngsters up to 10 years older. But there are surely a hundred others out there who could do as well.

It is not just a matter of ability, but enthusiasm, encouragement from parents and above all the right teaching with good learning materials. Greater access to high-level learning opportunities for all children would raise the proportion we now call gifted.

But who really benefits from these early exam successes? Ruth Lawrence, who entered Oxford at 12 to read maths, is now a maths researcher, which she would probably have become anyway. Sufiah Yusof, in the same situation, eventually ran away claiming intolerable pressure.

Looking at the lives of eminent adults, such as Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie and Thomas Edison, virtually none had been accelerated at school orattended special education. Their world-class contributions came when they were adults. Prodigies such as Mozart and Picasso were heavily tutored by their fathers and barely went to school, as were the three child chess masters, the Polgar sisters.

Strange how it seems to be fathers who dominate in almost all of these cases. Most prodigies, however, do not continue their advantage into exceptional adult achievement. Precocity is a bit like being taller when young - the others can catch up.

Two years ago, I reviewed all the international research on the gifted and their education for Ofsted. I found that follow-up studies showed high test scores or marks in school were not a reliable indicator of adult careers, except for those who continue on a similar path, such as teachers and academics. Some research revealed that 40 per cent of potentially high achievers had been underestimated by teachers.

The best possible effect of the growing numbers of very young successful examinees would be to wake up educators to the potential of many more children. The worst would be to put perhaps thousands of children under pressure from over-ambitious parents and teachers, and there is enough of that already.

The answer is to provide all children with opportunities for excellence, with encouragement to put in the time and energy. In the same way that every child has the opportunity to realise sporting talents through extra practice and matches, provision could be made for other areas such as chemistry or business. Not every child can soar in exams,but every child should have the chance to follow their star.

Joan Freeman is a developmental psychologist and visiting professor at Middlesex University

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