If you're good enough, you're old enough

12th July 2013 at 01:00
Fast-tracking the academically gifted to university does not have to be harmful - it can be life-enhancing and immensely beneficial

Have you heard of the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington in Seattle? I would guess not: it's one of the US' best-kept educational secrets. It's an experiment that is now into its middle age, and it has a huge amount to teach us and our children. It also informs the current debate in many developing countries about how to teach the most able.

I first became fully aware of its work in 2011, while researching a book on how the world teaches its most able students. Although I had come across mention of the Robinson Center, which takes children aged 15 or younger and puts them through full degree courses, I hadn't really taken the idea seriously.

I believed that putting children in such a "fast lane" would have disastrous consequences for their emotional development. I was promoted a year when I was 13 and it took me another 13 years to recover. My every instinct revolted against what I felt had to be a process of forced growth that was totally counter-intuitive.

Still, I took the decision to cross the US from the East Coast, where I was immersed in the world of charter schools, to pay the Robinson Center a visit. My core set of values, principles and viewpoints was more or less instantly shattered. I was, and am, a convert to one of the most remarkable educational initiatives I have ever known.

The Robinson Center's raison d'etre is not complicated. Its pioneering Early Entrance Program takes, per cohort, up to 16 young people who are under the age of 15 (and in many cases significantly younger) and gives them a year in its Transition School. There, they take a module or two from the University of Washington's full degree programme, and are then sent on as fully fledged undergraduates to the university's full-time degree courses.

I spent the best part of a morning on my own with the students of Transition School - and a bewildering number of its alumni, who clearly felt able to drop in whenever they chose. I have never met a happier bunch of children. They were fizzing with excitement about life in general and their studies in particular. Conversations veered seamlessly from the latest Nintendo game or the fortunes of the Red Sox baseball team to the more obscure reaches of physics.

The only sour note was struck by a 14-year-old, who explained that she had successfully completed an internship with the Central Intelligence Agency, but had returned to her father's announcement that she was too young to date boys. If she was old enough to work in espionage, she suggested, she ought to be able to go out with a boy.

I am not the only convert to this wonderful institution. It has been the subject of numerous external studies, reviews and reports. They include studies that take a serious look at the long-term quality of life of EEP alumni, proving conclusively that, far from harming or disadvantaging young people, the scheme turns out happy, successful and stable adults.

Intellectual fast lane

Of course, the Robinson Center's success is not an accident. The EEP, which offers a wide range of other courses and programmes for the most able, is continually reviewed and redefined. Transition School is a brilliant concept, executed by a small and outstanding staff. The greatest care is taken in selecting the children on the scheme, and the fact that, in their younger years at least, students live at home makes a huge difference. A careful system of checks is highly effective at reducing any risk from sexual predators.

At its heart, the centre is based on a simple premise. Some of our most able children simply run out of useful school by the time they reach 13 or so. I came across an example in a school I ran: a 13-year-old now ranked as one of the country's best mathematicians was driven mad by boredom once his school told him that there was no more it could teach him.

What the Robinson Center also recognises is that it is entirely possible to offer an intellectual fast lane to children without damaging their emotional development. It provides emotional security, while allowing the child to dictate how fast they learn, rather than pegging them back to the speed of the normally gifted.

In achieving this, it demonstrates the common denominator in every outstanding scheme: effective teaching of the most able puts the child in the driving seat and makes the teacher the mechanic who services the car.

The Robinson Center offers important lessons on how to teach the most able in every country in the world. It's a fair bet that, in the UK, the recent diatribe by schools inspectorate Ofsted on the subject of how we are failing our most able students will spawn a series of initiatives, programmes and quite possibly new centres for the most able.

Centres for the most able? We already have them. They're called universities. The EEP in Seattle proves that, for some of our most able children, it is not only easier to send them to a university instead of a school but actually preferable. I implore the heads of Oxford, Cambridge and the rest of the Russell Group of universities to head to Seattle to see for themselves.

Dr Martin Stephen is director of education for GEMS UK.

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