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

12th July 2013 at 01:00
Fast-tracking academically gifted students to university can help to raise the game for the most able

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 best-kept educational secrets in the US. It's an experiment that is now into its middle age and has a huge amount to teach us and our children. It also informs the current debate in many developing countries about teaching the most able.

I first became aware of its work in 2011, when researching a book on how the world teaches its most able students. While I had heard 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.

It had to be a freak, didn't it? I myself was promoted a year when I was 13, and reckoned it took me another 13 years to recover. It went without saying that children put in such a ludicrous "fast lane" would face disastrous consequences to their emotional development. 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 charter schools, to visit the Robinson Center. Once there, I began to wonder if the original name for the city of Seattle wasn't Damascus. Never before had I found a core set of values, principles and viewpoints 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 (EEP, with students rather alarmingly referred to as EEPers) takes, per cohort, up to 16 young people who must be under 15 - many are 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 prestigious 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 back in whenever they chose. I have never met a happier bunch of children. They were fizzingly excited by life in general and their studies in particular. Conversations between them veered seamlessly from the latest Nintendo game to high-level discussion of some of the more obscure reaches of physics.

The only sour note was a 14-year-old who had completed an internship with the CIA, and had returned to find her father announcing that she was too young to date boys. If she was old enough to work in espionage, she suggested, not unreasonably, she ought to be able to go out with a chap.

And I was not the only one who was converted to this wonderful institution. It has attracted numerous external studies, reviews and reports. They include studies taking a long and serious look at the long-term quality of life of EEP alumni, which prove conclusively that far from harming or disadvantaging young people, the scheme turns out a string of happy, successful and stable adults.

Intellectual fast lane

Of course, the Robinson Center's success is no accident. The programme, which offers a wide range of other courses and programmes for the most able, is continually reviewing and redefining how it goes about things. Transition School is a brilliant concept, brilliantly executed by a small and outstanding staff. The greatest care is taken in selecting the children on the scheme, and the fact that, in the crucial years at least, students live at home makes a huge difference.

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. 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 intellectually it lets the child dictate how fast they learn, rather than pegging them back to the speed of the normally gifted.

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

The Robinson Center has huge lessons for teaching the most able in all countries. It is a fair bet that in the UK the recent diatribe by school inspectors on the topic 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 programme 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 to trek out to Seattle and see for themselves.

Martin Stephen is director of education for GEMS UK.

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