Whizz Kid

17th April 2009 at 01:00
A potential child prodigy in your class is a mixed blessing

Ohaib Ahmed has his career marked out. He wants to work in the City as an actuary, using maths and statistics to analyse pensions and insurance. He reads the Financial Times, blames the economic downturn on the banking systems of a number of countries - rather than just America, as some do - and thinks the Government could have acted sooner to influence the Bank of England's decision to reduce interest rates.

Zohaib is nine years old. He achieved an A in his maths A-level last month and is still at primary school.

He takes inspiration from his older brother, Wajih, 11, who also wants to be an actuary. Wajih got an A for his further maths A-level last month - he already has an A for A-level maths under his belt - and plans to sit his triple science GCSE this summer, ahead of starting secondary school in September.

The boys are popular at their school. They like to play football, ride their bikes and play on their Nintendo Wii, which they do for about an hour a day, according to their mother Saadia Ahmed.

Julia Tancock, their former teacher at The Grove Primary School in Surrey, describes them as "delightful children" who are well motivated and a pleasure to teach. She keeps in touch with them - they moved to another primary school when the family moved home last July - and the boys visit her whenever they are in the area. "What they stand out for is the fact that they have remained so normal and balanced," she says.

At their new school, Knightwood Primary in Hampshire, the brothers take part in most lessons, but when it comes to maths, they take out their own advanced work to do. They still complete the same maths tests and homework set for their peers because their parents think it's important for them to participate and be part of the system.

"It was a pleasure to extend their learning by using higher-order questioning and developing their independent thinking skills," says Ms Tancock. "The fact that both boys were above average in other subjects made it more manageable to fit them in the class. The emphasis with both boys was to develop their thinking skills and reasoning. I would try to answer their questions with a further question to enhance their analytical thought processes."

The school sought advice from the county council on whether to move them up a year or two, but was advised against it. The school's gifted and talented co-ordinator approached the local secondary school for support once the boys started working on A-level material.

But how does it feel to teach a child who is potentially more intelligent than you are? "I used the opportunity in a positive way to help me evaluate my practice and how I could make changes to address their needs," Ms Tancock says.

Not all child prodigies get such a smooth ride. Perhaps the most notable is that of the precocious antiques expert, James Charles Harries, who shot to fame with his distinctive blond, curly hair and bow tie when he appeared on Terry Wogan's TV show, aged 12. He was taken out of school shortly after due to bullying and failed to achieve academically.

Now called Lauren Charlotte Harries - following a sex change in 2001 - she and her family were attacked when a gang of youths broke into their home in 2005, shouting the word "tranny". She was last reported as working as a counsellor and drama teacher.

Ruth Lawrence caught the public eye when she was pictured on the Oxford University campus in her cape and gown on the back of her father's tandem bike.

Ms Lawrence became the youngest British person to gain a first-class degree, aged 13, and the youngest to graduate from Oxford. She did so with a starred first and special commendation, despite starting her degree at just 11 years old. But she fell out with both parents and now lives in Israel, where she is a professor at the Einstein Institute of Mathematics, and has vowed publicly not to repeat the "hothouse" teaching techniques employed by her father on his own children.

Sufiah Yusof made the headlines in 1997 when she was photographed on the lawn at Oxford on her first day, aged 13. She failed to complete her degree, running away at the age of 15 having sent her parents a letter saying the pressure was too much.

Ms Yusof featured in the papers again early last year when an undercover reporter for the News of the World exposed her as a prostitute. Later last year she was reported as having moved into social work.

The one thing all three have in common is that they were educated at home. Ms Lawrence's father gave up his job as a computer consultant when she was five years old to tutor her at home. Ms Yusof's parents were accused of "hothousing".

All the Yusof children were alleged to have been taught via their father Farooq's accelerated learning methods - a regime that involved studying in the freezing cold and punishments for answering questions incorrectly.

Lionel Fanthorpe, who taught the then James Harries when he was about nine years old, believes that one-to-one help and sympathy could have helped him avoid problems with bullying at school.

He feels that exceptionally gifted children should only ever be taught at home. "Some gifted children are so different from their peers that traditional school education does not help them, and they can experience problems such as bullying and derision from other children," he says.

Professor Joan Freeman - a psychologist and patron of the National Association for Able Children in Education (Nace) - takes an altogether different view. "They miss out on the rest of human life. Children are human beings and are deserving of friends, sport and relationships. I can't see the point at all of encouraging a child to be six years ahead." The child should attend school and simply be set alternative work, she says.

This approach worked for Balamurali Ambati, who graduated from New York University at 13 and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine at 17, becoming the world's youngest doctor in 1995.

Mr Ambati is now an associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and director of corneal research at the University of Utah School of Medicine. Like the Ahmeds, his parents thought it important that he attended school. But his father managed to convince school administrators to allow him to study at his own pace - nearly twice as fast as his peers. "My parents definitely opened doors. But they often had to overcome bureaucratic resistance," Mr Ambati says.

He warns that teachers must do all they can to nurture the minority that show exceptional talent. "Too often the system encourages mediocrity and conformity. I would say teachers can unlock the doors for excellence to blossom by allowing and encouraging children to develop at the right pace. Recognising talent and helping it flourish should be one of teachers' highest priorities."

Mr and Mrs Ahmed have chosen to combine a school education with some tutoring at home. They started teaching the boys from the age of two, using groups of balls to explain the concept of addition and subtraction.

"We would put three balls on one side and two on the other. We'd then ask them to bring them together and see how many were there," Mrs Ahmed says. "Zohaib used to see what his older brother was doing and wanted to do the same. And he picked it up quickly." Noticing the boys seemed to enjoy the exercise, they moved them on to basic maths workbooks.

But they feel it is still imperative the boys attend school. "It's important they socialise as well as study. They need to learn important communication skills and how to interact. And they study other subjects at school, whereas we only work on maths at home," Mrs Ahmed explains.

Ms Tancock says the Ahmeds were always keen that their sons attended school, "clearly to ensure that they did not become unsociable academic nerds".

This is the right choice, in her opinion. "They are still children and need to develop the social skills that they will need to exist within the real world. It does worry me when children are removed to be `hothoused' within an environment that is totally parent driven. What happens to the creativity? Are you allowed to make and learn from your mistakes? And for whose benefit is it all? Yes, there is a place for providing a challenge and stretching within a specialism, but are the children always willing participants in this?"

The Ahmeds are preparing for Wajih to go to the local comprehensive, Thornden School, in September, where Stephanie Braithwaite, deputy head, says they have dealt with gifted pupils before. "We take the view that all pupils should be treated as individuals. A young person has to be ready socially for the next stage of education, as well as academically," she says.

Nevertheless, Wajih's parents intend for both him and his brother to go to university at 14. But will this be a step too far? You only need to look at Ms Yusof's story to see how accelerating a gifted child's learning can backfire.

"As for university at 14, well . ," says Ms Tancock, who fears that Wajih and Zohaib will be fast-tracked in other subjects for which they don't have the natural ability.

Professor Freeman believes it can only deprive them of their childhood. "Time and time again, going to university early has been proven not to work," she says, despite the fact Ruth Lawrence has been successful in her field since she graduated at 13.

"She'd have been exactly where she is now in her career without having gone to university early," says Professor Freeman. "The only difference would be that she would have formed relationships and lived a much richer, warmer and happier life."



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