Is a child ready to be a student?

With a 14-year-old Chinese boy expected to start at Oxford this autumn, a debate is raging about whether children should go to university at such a young age. Richard Garner reports
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Now, at the age of 14, he looks certain to take up a place at Oxford University's Corpus Christi college this autumn to study for a materials science degree. Yinan has been offered a provisional place provided he gets A grades in maths, physics and chemistry. According to his tutor and mentor at Copland Community College in Brent, north-west London, Yinan is a "racing certainty" to get the grades.

"He's already got his A grade in maths, and he's five marks off physics with two papers to go," says Andrew Jones, the school's head of chemistry. For good measure, he also has completed an Open University degree in maths.

Yinan was singled out as an especially talented pupil when he arrived at the school two years ago, and he was given special catch-up classes to help him to cope with a curriculum delivered in English. "He is now fluent in the language," Jones says.

Before his father took up a job as the UK representative for a Chinese aerospace company, Yinan was a pupil at the Number Eight middle school in Beijing. According to Jones, the school is "a mixture of the Chinese Eton and a top French lycée". Every year, about 20,000 candidates scramble for 20 places on its top courses.

Yinan initially had reservations about going to Oxford at such a young age, following in the footsteps of prodigies such as Ruth Lawrence, who became the youngest person to obtain a degree at the age of 14. Now, however, he's become accustomed to the idea and thinks it's no big deal, according to his tutor.

But Yinan has been told he will not be able to stay in halls of residence with other students. "They won't let me," he said. "I am too young, so I have to find accommodation."

His parents will be renting a home in Oxford and a member of the family will stay with him during his spell at the university. The school is seeking sponsorship to help him with his living costs.

According to Dr Richard Evans, the deputy head teacher at Copland and Yinan's maths teacher, Yinan slotted into sixth-form life at the school very well. He behaved like a 14-year-old and did things like hiding the blackboard pen in lessons, but he got on very well with his fellow students, Evans says.

Copland has one of the largest sixth forms in the country, with 700 of its 1,800 pupils engaged in sixth-form studies. It is also one of the most multiethnic schools in Britain: 96 per cent of its pupils are from ethnic minority groups. Between them, they speak 44 languages in the playground.

As a result, the school has a reputation for being able to teach pupils who have English as a second language. It also has a special programme for teaching gifted youngsters and giving special masterclasses in their best subjects.

Nationally, a debate is being conducted over whether it is a good thing to start university so young. Earlier prodigies such as Sufiah Yusof, who ran away from Oxford to work in a hotel in Bournemouth after going up to study maths at the age of 13, have regretted the move.

Some universities, including Cambridge, have introduced an age limit on students and will not take anyone aged under 17. This is largely because all staff who come into contact with such children have to go through child protection checks, and universities believe this is too costly for just one or two students. Others think that youngsters of this age will not benefit from the university experience.

Against this, however, it can be argued that bright youngsters need the stimulation and could stagnate and lose their motivation if they have to wait until they are 18 to start university.

A spokeswoman for Oxford University said its policy was to take only academic ability into account when deciding on admissions, although this is kept under review.

As for Yinan, he's unlikely to be aware of any debate about his decision to go to university. He has returned to China for the summer holidays to see his grandparents and intends to stay there until after he gets his A-level results.

Arrangements are being made to e-mail them to him in China, but it seems he won't be in for any surprises. "He's sure of getting the grades," Jones says.

Too much, too young: case histories

Ruth Lawrence was probably Britain's best-known child genius. Tutored at home by her family, she passed O-level maths at the age of eight and pure maths A-level at the age of nine, and went to Oxford at 13, having come first out of 530 candidates in an entrance examination.

Her three-year degree course took her two years to complete and she became the university's youngest-ever graduate, gaining a first-class degree. She was chaperoned through university by her father, Harry. Her parents, computer experts from Huddersfield, gave up their jobs to educate their daughter.

She is now married to the Israeli mathematician Ariyeh Nemark - whom she met on a course at the University of Michigan - and lives with her two children in Jerusalem, where she is professor of mathematics at the Hebrew University. She wants her children "to develop in a natural way".

Sufiah Yusof equalled the record of Ruth Lawrence when she went to Oxford University at the age of 13. However, she disappeared at the age of 15 the day after her third-year exams. She was eventually found living in Bournemouth and working in a hotel, and refused to rejoin her family; she claimed they had put pressure on her. Her parents, too, had given up their jobs to educate her at home.

Two years later, she returned to Oxford to complete her final year, but failed to finish her degree. She later married a trainee lawyer from Oxford, who had converted to Islam, of which she is a strong follower. She was working at the time as an administrative assistant for a construction company.

Adam Spencer gained B grades at A-level in chemistry, biology and French at the age of 13, two years ago. He had also obtained a B grade in maths when he was 12. However, despite the fact that his grades qualified him for admission to many universities, Adam, from Arlesey in Bedfordshire, had difficulty getting a place because many universities refuse to carry out the child protection screening necessary for people who work with children aged under 16.

Arran Fernandez, from Surrey, may be another child prodigy in the making. He became the youngest person to obtain an A* grade at GCSE two years ago, when he sat maths at the age of seven. That achievement followed his becoming the youngest person ever to obtain a GCSE of any description when he obtained a D in information technology at the age of five.

Arran, who said at the time that he had narrowed his career options down to mathematician, lorry driver or space explorer, now plans to start A-level studies - which could see him qualifying for university at the same age as Ruth Lawrence.