The older you get the harder it is to learn, they say. But teachers at Ryde College believe children should begin learning as young as possible. The college, a small family-owned business in Watford, has built up a reputation for teaching some of the youngest children ever to gain academic qualifications in IT and mathematics.
The noticeboards at Ryde proudly display newspaper cuttings telling the college's success stories. Geetha Thaninathan, at six years old, was the youngest girl ever to pass a GCSE in IT; Ilia Karmanov gained a grade B in A-level IT, aged 10; and Arran Fernandez, who passed a maths GCSE, aged five, have all hit the headlines recently.
With publicity like this, there is no shortage of parents willing to pay about £20 an hour to give their children a head-start in IT. The college takes between 100 and 150 pupils a year. They study after school and at weekends, four hours a week for nine months before taking GCSEs or A-levels.
These are normal children, not protégés. Provided that children can read and write and want to learn, there is no reason why they cannot take an A-level or GCSE early, says Mike Ryde, managing director.
The college has no entry criteria. A more imporant question is whether parents are committed enough to spend the time ferrying the children to and from classes. Some drive from as far away as Birmingham or Kent. Most parents send children between the ages of 10 and 12, but the college takes children of any age.
"We want to make the college available to everyone. It is not elitist. We don't take on the best or the richest. We try to be as fair as possible," says Mike Ryde.
Many former pupils have gone on to successful careers in IT. One, Neil Madhvani, set up his own dotcom company while still at school, and is now working as an IT consultant for Logica while he completes his degree. Others have moved into lucrative IT contracting jobs. Ryde, himself a former programmer, takes pride in the fact that the college is helping to inspire a future generation of IT professionals.
"That is one of the biggest compliments anyone can pay us. To know that children still like the subject, and have not been put off and then go to work in the industry," says Ryde.
The college was founded almost unintentionally 20 years ago, when Ryde's father, Ronald, an IT lecturer, helped his son through the computer O-level at the age of 15. Word quickly spread and soon Ron Ryde was inundated with requests from parents looking for tuition for their children.
He took early retirement and started his own business. "He used to hire the local church, the local synagogue, you name it. We had lessons going on everywhere." Today the college employs six teachers in its own building on a Watford industrial estate and Ron Ryde still teaches there.
His son is critical of conventional schools for failing to give children the opportunities to develop IT skills at a young age. When children are young, they absorb and retain new information very easily, and yet most schools fail to take advantage of that.
The education system is not flexible enough to allow children to take exams before the age of 16, even when they are easily capable of passing them.
"Why is it that we insist on an education system that puts immense pressure on children at the age of 16, taking sometimes up to 10 GCSEs. What is wrong with taking one or two GCSEs at nine or 10, and spreading their qualifications across their academic careers?" asks Mike Ryde.
He puts the college's 100% success rate down to small classes, skilled teachers, and paying close attention to teaching the exam syllabus, rather than any special techniques. "We find that with the small classes, working in two, two-hour slots each week, the children can cover the theoretical aspects of the GCSE, easily twice, and possibly three times in nine months," says Mike Ryde.
Although it is not required by the GCSE syllabus, the college also insists that all pupils learn to program. Most learn Visual Basic, but others complete coursework in Java or C++.
Programming languages are like any other language, says Mike Ryde. They help children develop logic skills, which helps them in other areas of life.
The teachers tend to be former IT professionals with good communications skills. "We prefer someone with IT skills and the personality to get their ideas across, rather than someone who can teach but struggles with the subject," says Mike Ryde.
Former pupils claim their experiences have boosted their confidence and helped their performance in other academic subjects. They learn skills that can easily be applied to other subjects, including exam and study techniques which prove invaluable later.
But Ryde College has not been without its share of controversy. The college has come under fire from some educational experts who claim that exposing children to IT at an early age can harm their development. Tony Gardiner of Birmingham University once suggested that Ryde College should be burned down for its "mad" teaching philosophy.
Mike Ryde is dismissive. "I would not mind criticism if somebody comes to the college and takes the time to understand what we do. It is not rocket science, it is pretty straight-forward stuff," he says.
The college made headlines again recently, when education officials vetoed plans by a state junior school to collaborate with Ryde on a fast-track GCSE IT course for its pupils. The programme, which would have offered pupils cut-price private tuition at school, provoked accusations that the scheme would undermine the principles of free state education.
"We are taking this further. We are not happy with the system at the moment, and the way it is affecting the education of the children," says Mike Ryde. "We have been teaching for about 20 years. The children seem to do well when they move on to further education and perform well when they go to work."
The college has branched out from IT into maths, English and French. Its latest venture is an IT course for toddlers. Mike Ryde started it for personal reasons - he wanted to spend more time with his four-year-old daughter, Francesca. But the course has taken off, and is proving popular with parents.
How one young entrepreneur built a career in IT
Neil Madhvani, 21, caught the IT bug at Ryde College at the age of nine when he began studying for a GCSE in Information Technology. He took his A-level a year later. By 12, Madhvani was running his own computer business, Starlight Technology, from his bedroom. He built PCs and provided troubleshooting services for friends and local businesses."I used to go and help people at weekends, setting up their systems, helping the teachers at school," he says.
In sixth form, Madhvani teamed up with a friend and set up "Time2Talk," an online company supplying mobile phones. He also programmed the Web site. "At the time, there were not many dealers offering a comprehensive range on the Internet. It has been very successful. We started in 1998, and by Christmas 1999 we had opened a shop in Barnett," says Madhvani. Today the company employs four people.
He has found time to study for four A-levels, gaining straight As and is now in the third year of a degree in computing information systems engineering at Imperial College, London. He spends his holidays working as an IT consultant for Logica.
This was first published in November 2002