Last week, 14 year old Arran Fernandez became the youngest person since William Pitt the Younger to be offered a place at Cambridge University. The Surrey teenager was offered a place to study physics at Fitzwilliam College, breaking the 237 year record set by the 19th century Prime Minister.
As a former Fitzwilliam student, I’m very much concerned as to the motives that have driven the decision of my college’s admissions tutors. I hope that the boy’s welfare has been taken into account as much as the fact that they might have the next Stephen Hawking on their hands almost certainly has. He will be at least 4 years younger than the next youngest undergraduate at the college, and won’t be able to participate in the two activities which-for better or worst-define student life: sex and drinking. University is much more than just academic study and any student-no matter how talented and promising they are-deserves the opportunity to experience everything these three years can offer.
He is clearly very talented, but I don’t see how making him wait 2 years more would make a lot of difference except giving him the chance to be a proper child and enjoy life that he almost certainly has been denied thus far. He could do another round of A-Levels in some art-based subjects, he could go travelling-do something outside the narrow world of maths and exams that it looks like he has been confined to up to now and certainly will never escape from when he starts at one of the most demanding universities in the world.
Professor Joan Freeman, author of Gifted Children Grown Up, studied the lives of 35 child prodigies and found the majority of them ended up as disappointed adults. She asks “what will they do for an encore if they achieve so much so early?” The National Association for Gifted Children advises parents not to put their children in for exams at a very young age: NAGC’s education consultant Jo Counsell calls pushing children like this a “cruel experiment” which ignores children’s social and emotional needs.
The press reaction to all this was very telling. All the papers that covered the story did so in lurid detail and gushing tones, fawning over his string of impressive exam results, appended with a disturbing picture of Fernandez when he was 5, holding both his GCSE results slip and a teddy bear. Last year, we were faced with the uncomfortable image of 10 year-old Hollie Steel bursting into tears live on stage during the Semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. If we’re not careful, we risk regressing back to the 18th century notion that children are merely mini versions of adults and should be expected to do everything adults can do.
There needs to be a very strong reassertion-both in education and the media-that childhood is a separate sphere of life in which people have very different needs that should be protected and catered for. Fernandez’s parents were being highly irresponsible entering him for GCSEs at 5 years of age, but it is the education system’s fault for making this possible at all; children are sat in school halls at the age of seven to do their KS1 SATS, a time when their horizons should extend no further than playing outside. Our lives are already pressurised enough at it is without exposing people to it when they’re barely out of nappies.