Most secondary school pupils are content to muddle through the national curriculum, with exams at 14 then 16 stretching them to the full.
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff
Students are encouraged to get their hands dirty
For some of the brightest, however, this is not enough.
So, to stimulate their interest, 500 are being sent to university for three weeks in the summer holidays.
The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth gives groups of 11- to 16-year-olds "intellectual enrichment" by letting them study subjects - often new to them - at the same level as undergraduates, while their less bright friends are out on skateboards and playing football.
But it is not all dry classroom learning. On the syllabus are dinosaur fossils, the use of conkers, the special effects in James Bond Films and the acting career of the basketball player Michael Jordan.
Students taken from the top 5% of the age group specialise in a single subject for the length of the residential summer school.
These include ecology, creative writing, engineering and - wait for it - sport and games: cultural representations in literature, history, art and the media.
The national curriculum it is not.
But Dr Sue Barker, who runs the ecology course at the academy's main centre at Warwick University, insists the aim is not to create a group of hothouse flowers.
Her teaching involves looking at real-life problems from various perspectives, often unknown to most adults.
During the course, she runs a field trip to a stream which runs through the campus.
The children wade around in protective clothing, collecting samples and analysing the state of the river before they decide the level of pollution.
They look at the biology - if there are mayflies and dragonflies around, the water is likely to be clean, if there are lots of leeches, it is more likely to be dirty.
There is also chemical analysis in the lab, and aesthetics - making a judgement from the way the water looks and smells.
Dr Barker said: "We tend to make it as little like school as possible. We do work them hard but there's a range of different opportunities. Much of it is outdoors in the field.
"We brief them about the activities. Then there's a bit of number-crunching and thinking about it afterwards.
"At school, the children are often streets ahead of the other kids. They really benefit here.
"There are probably about three children in the group who are way above their contemporaries.
"We try to be flexible, offering teaching that's as relaxed and supportive as possible.
"We are always observing them and checking performance items off our list. At the end of the day, we talk about how the students are doing."
Some of the children on the courses are seven or eight years younger than the average first-year undergraduate.
'School is quite limited'
Christine, 13, from Hendon, north London, is exceptionally bright for her age and finds the teaching offered at her school frustrating.
She said: "It's quite limited sometimes. What we do study is at a lower level because we haven't even started studying for our GCSEs. Also, we don't have ecology on the syllabus.
"We are just expected to learn for exams. I find it a bit frustrating. I enjoy the fact that here they expect you to try hard rather than just finishing your work each week.
"This is a chance to express your talents. What we do here isn't going to affect my school work greatly, but it will give me a broader view."
Teacher James Bennett helps Emma, 14, design a sports advert
Dr Barker added: "The standard we teach at is roughly the equivalent of first-year university undergraduates. The children here are fairly comparable in their ability to cope.
"We've got three 12 year olds who are having to work hard but their experiences and maturity are not the same as for 15 and 16 year olds.
"We tried not to do things they would do at school. It's all about enriching them, in terms of giving them independence in their thinking skills and looking at the wider world."
In teaching mainstream national curriculum subjects, the academy emphasises the need to study more broadly, while enabling the children to get further ahead of their contemporaries.
Some maths students are likely to take maths A-levels at 15, anyway, so the extra help is useful.
In chemistry, the syllabus is enlivened by exploring the processes behind creating special effects for the latest James Bond film.
The academy started at Warwick last summer after it was chosen by the Department for Education and Skills.
It now operates at four other universities: Durham, Exeter, York and Christchurch College, Canterbury.
Around 500 children - roughly 15 to a class - are taking part, costing parents up to £600 each, depending on their income.
To win a place, pupils can sit a purpose-designed World Class Test or US pre-university exams.
Alternatively, their teachers can submit results from national curriculum tests, while the children compile a portfolio to demonstrate their all-round creative and intellectual skills.
At Warwick, the sport and games class, the children were doing just that.
They had already designed their own sports adverts for TV, having analysed use of camera, psychology, marketing and history.
Now it was time to write a critique of the film Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and a cast of cartoon characters.
It might not be the stuff of intellectual film reviewers, but the children were encouraged by teacher James Bennett to look at it analytically.
They had to study camera angles, plot devices and the representation of Jordan (a black man) from the point of view of race.
Emma, 14, from York, said: "The course has opened up new ways of looking at sport.
"I want to come back next year. I wasn't sure before I started, but it's really relaxed. I want to go into sport when I'm older. This has given me lots of options."
Stuart, 16, from St Albans, is a talented athlete, who has to combine his sports training with study.
He said: "Looking at the history and media representation of sport is something I've never been able to do at school.
"I don't think doing this will make me bored when I get back to school, as I'll be doing different subjects.
"I've enjoyed it here. I definitely want to go to university but there's no rush.
"I had an image that this might be a place full of people with egg heads, but it's not like that."