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Saturday, 27 May, 2000, 00:37 GMT 01:37 UK
Young students face their exams
By BBC News Online's Alison Stenlake
A private college is entering more than 80 pupils for the information technology GCSE exam this summer - average age, 11.
Most pupils across the UK sit their GCSEs at 15 or 16, and A-levels at 18, after studying the courses for two years.
Students at Ryde College in Watford tend to take them rather earlier, usually after just nine months of work on the syllabuses.
Two former students hold world records for being the youngest to pass a GCSE and A-level in computing - at six and 11, respectively.
It has even introduced a computer skills course for toddlers.
The knee-jerk reaction to all of the above is to brand Ryde's pupils "whizzkids" and geniuses.
But this, according to the college, is totally wrong. It claims all its students are "normal", and says that most other children, given the chance, would be able to achieve the same results.
So what is the secret to the college's startling success?
According to its managing director, Mike Ryde, there isn't one.
"It's about hard work, staff doing their jobs, having the skills to do their jobs, and the underlying philosophy," he said.
It is this philosophy - that children have an instinctive ability to learn, and so should be allowed to do so at their own pace - that the college finds itself constantly defending.
Mr Ryde, 34, said: "There are a lot of preconceptions about how children should be taught. Everyone has an opinion on it, as everyone's been through it.
"Most people have pretty negative memories of their education, and this tends to be the first thing they throw back at us.
"We assume children can learn, and help them do so.
"Intelligence comes a long way down the scale. What's more important is motivation and willingness to work, and work doesn't necessarily mean nasty things, it can also be good fun.
"Children like coming here."
The college was founded by Mr Ryde's father, Dr Ronald Ryde, a former lecturer in computing, nearly 20 years ago.
The first students were Mike and one of his friends. He taught them at home, and in 1981 they both passed O-level computing after nine months.
Other parents then asked Dr Ryde to teach their children, but until 1984, when a neighbour asked him to teach her 10-year-old son, he had not considered taking on younger children.
After checking with the examination board and discovering there were no age limits, Dr Ryde entered him for the exam - and he passed.
Since then Dr Ryde says he has never turned away a young student.
For many years, the college only offered courses in information technology, but now students can also learn maths, English, and from this year, French.
It hopes to offer tuition in all subjects.
Dr Ryde, 69, dismisses suggestions that taking exams at a very early age puts pressure on children.
He argues that it is the conventional system, where pupils "sit around twiddling their thumbs" for years then have to sit up to 10 GCSEs at a time, which causes stress.
'Education is like prayer'
"We're living in a knowledge-based economy, and we've got to encourage children to learn. If we don't, we'll lose out.
"The current education system may be responsible for educating the young, but it's also responsible for holding them back.
"If they can do it, why hold them back? When children are young, they're mentally at their peak.
"It's also morale-building and spiritually uplifting for children to learn when they are young.
"Education is like prayer in that sense. You get the same type of satisfaction when you work out a problem."
As well as teaching children, Ryde College holds classes for adults and runs courses for businesses, but it is the education of its young students which is at the heart of what it does.
Some pupils travel considerable distances to attend two-hour classes twice a week, in the evenings and at weekends. One current 11-year-old student travels from Norfolk.
Critics say the parents of Ryde students are "pushy", and force their children to study when they could be enjoying their free time.
But the college refutes this.
While it does not select its students on academic ability, it does interview all prospective pupils - and Mr Ryde said it was easy to gauge the children's own commitment.
The college, which usually has a waiting list, charges between about £16 and £19 an hour for tuition.
The pupils also still have "normal" schooling - and hobbies.
He said: "It's so frustrating being told children can't do things, when every year we've got children passing exams at a younger age.
"It doesn't make them "freaks" - they can be studying one minute and playing with the mob the next.
"I don't think studying a subject is detrimental to a child. It's rather sad that people think otherwise."
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