Ronald Ryde shows children that they can pass computer exams at a very young age. Patrick Kelly went to find out how he does it. Victoria Kelly is looking forward to taking her GCSE in computer studies next year. She's happy to get to grips with systems analysis and tackle the intricacies of programming. Database entry facilities hold no terrors for her.
Victoria is seven years old.
A child prodigy? The product of intensive educational hot-housing? Not at all. Victoria is no more of a genius than any of her peers at her private evening and Saturday morning classes in north London.
Nor is Lea Michaels an exceptionally gifted pupil. Her parents are proud that she passed her GCSE at the age of eight, but they believe that Lea's exam success is down to her determination and the talents of her tutor, Dr Ronald Ryde.
Dr Ryde is quite a sensation among middle-class parents in and around Northwood. Over the past 15 years, more than 600 pupils have passed GCSEs and A-levels in computer studies under his expert eye. Most are well under the usual age for taking these exams. Nine, 10 and 11-year-olds who started out with only a rudimentary grasp of computers are walking off with A and B grades after just nine months on Dr Ryde's courses. What's more, many of them go beyond the demands of the curriculum and are busy creating programs, Web sites and networks.
With a strike rate like this, you might expect Northwood Tutorial Centre to be a slick, professional operation based in well-appointed central London offices. The market is, after all, replete with anxious middle-class parents willing to pay for a good start in their offspring's educational lives.
But Dr Ryde is not in the image business. Classes are conducted from rooms upstairs in his house; the front hall is cluttered with the shoes of pupils who tiptoe quietly past the room where Mrs Ryde is watching television. As for the boss of Northwood Tutorial, Central Casting couldn't have provided a man more tailor-made for the role of the eccentric boffin. Now 66, and invariably clad in a cap last fashionable when it was worn by Sixties pop icon Donovan, a spotted bow tie and tufted sideburns, the computer maestro flits from one room to another checking on his charges' progress. His manner is warm, friendly but persuasive. Pupils are left in no doubt that his expectations are high but they are encouraged to believe in themselves too.
No special techniques are used to coax exceptional performances from children. The Ryde prospectus eschews psychological mumbo-jumbo as well as educational orthodoxy.
"Children are underestimated by our educational system. They have an ability to learn but we don't give them enough credit," he says. "I have no magic formula. I treat children as adults - as equals. I don't patronise them and I give them room to stretch themselves." He speaks passionately about educational under-achievement. He himself was written off as a low achiever.
He sets no tests for the children he takes on. "They come from a wide range of abilities - all they need is motivation." And of course, parents willing to pay for an average four hours' tuition after school and at weekends (five hours for A-levels). Both GCSE and A-levels require three terms' work (Pounds 779 and Pounds 1,038 a term, respectively). Such is his popularity that he has now taken on extra teachers, including his two sons, both with their own jobs in the computer industry. Sheer numbers now threaten to over-run the house, so a synagogue and church hall have been pressed into service as tutorial rooms. Reluctantly, Dr Ryde is thinking of moving to a proper office.
He started his professional life as a primary teacher and switched to the nascent computing industry in the early 60s because he "wanted something different". Within a few years he was back teaching, though this time he was a computer scientist at what was then North London Polytechnic.
Dr Ryde took early retirement but a neighbour persuaded him to teach his son the rudiments of computing. The boy's progress was so swift that his parents wanted him to do O-levels in the subject.
"At first, I said 'You must be joking. He's five years too young,' " he recalls. But he relented and the boy passed with flying colours.
"That's when I realised that our educational system is upside down. There are many professors and doctors in universities who should be teaching in primary schools where children learn fastest," he says.
"Society is losing out. We are wasting our mental resources by not recognising the capability of our children. I firmly believe that children as young as seven or eight can get GCSEs in a number of subjects, not just computing. "
He denies that his tutorial centre is a forcing house. "If the children didn't want to learn, they simply wouldn't do it," he says.
But he is aware that small classes and individual teaching make an enormous difference. "What I do here could be done in schools all over the country but there's too much emphasis on methods and not enough on the philosophy of teaching."
Despite his success, Dr Ryde says his views are not popular in education. His efforts to interest universities in his teaching theories have been ignored. He is not invited to give lectures, seminars or conference papers. Some schools have been unhelpful about allowing pupils to sit exams.
"They take the view that it is disruptive but all the parents tell me that their children's school work improves when they take the GCSE. They have more confidence and that is reflected in their work."
Dr Ronald Ryde: 01923 826000
Work here will help other subjects
Jasmine is 14 and already has a GCSE under her belt. She plans to be doing her A-level in information technology by the time she's 16. Already she has mastered Visual Basic and feels that her knowledge of programming will be of use in her other subjects.
"An awful lot of school work is done on computers now so it's very useful to know what makes them tick," she says. "Since I've been coming to Dr Ryde's classes. I've also improved my English and maths."