In the middle of an industrial estate outside Watford, something extraordinary is happening. Children as young as six are passing GCSEs in IT, and others as young as nine are passing A-levels after studying at Ryde College, an independent evening class school.
Set up by Ron Ryde in 1982, the school isn't actually a school in the fullest sense - it only teaches IT, Maths and English, which it hopes the pupils will attain GCSEs in as early as possible.
Despite IT being the core subject, and even the most basic courses feature some elements of programming, Ryde College isn't a centre for prodigies.
"I think when children go to secondary school they're treading water for three to four years and then - suddenly - put under tremendous pressure for the last two," explains Ryde.
"Why hold children back all that time? In any other academic situation, you don't take all your exams at once. Almost all degrees, for instance, are modular now."
Ryde has a philosophy on the merits of teaching these subjects earlier but, to sum it up crudely, he says if children of average ability can gain qualifications from an early age, why shouldn't they?
"Children can take subjects at an earlier age with relatively little pressure," explains Ryde. "Imagine if they could carry that on throughout their time in education. Setting goals all the way through keeps them interested."
A lot of Ryde's thinking stems from some fairly basic observations. His parents were from Poland, and as a child he noticed that they never lost their accents.
"They always spoke with this broken accent," he says, "And yet I didn't."
Ryde has grandchildren who live in Switzerland and speak several languages fluently.
"Now that wouldn't be the case if they'd lived in all those places when they were 10 years older," he says. "The education system is responsible for holding back these children."
But Ryde's view is controversial. Most education professionals view such early learning as harmful, and likely to damage later development. Opposition to formal tests for seven-year-olds is increasing.
While many better-off parents join waiting lists for classes at which toddlers are played classical music and encouraged to play with simple instruments, some educationalists are outraged.
"Some people think it can harm children later on to be taught too early. In Scandinavia, I don't think children start school until six or seven.
"If early starts hold children back later on, why have primary education at all?"
Ryde may have a lot of ideas about education, but he has many more questions than answers about the way things are.
"We all have experiences and memories of school, not all of them nice," he says. "I don't really see why streams, which are common within the school years, don't mix ages. Now, I wouldn't suggest you start putting children together purely on grounds of ability, but there's a lot to be said for mixed-up classes."
Part of school, so the thinking goes, is learning about social behaviour and learning to deal with different ages within a peer group. Putting some children of high ability together regardless of age might not be harmful, if it wasn't just one clever child at the back of the class because they've jumped a year. Ryde believes the natural range in ability should be a reason for mixing kids up, rather then keeping them in separate groups. "I think it's perfectly possible that more harm could be done socially by putting children in single-sex schools."
By any measure, this is fairly radical stuff, but Ryde has a lot of considered arguments. "Nothing has changed, fundamentally, in education for about 500 years. Not since the invention of the school. You sit in a class and you listen. The computer, at least, should have changed all of that. Religion and science have changed more than education. People seem to regard education as somehow divine, and not to be messed around with."
Ryde goes on to talk about how established educational thought has children unable to grasp abstract concepts until they're beginning to turn into adults. Yet he has seven-year-olds writing routines with nested loops.
"I think that teaching programming to children this young helps them learn to think in different ways. They're learning how to learn - especially about how to get homework done, to take responsibility for it, to behave. NOw the PC makes this learning process more manageable. And I think teaching programming to children helps them tp delvelop confidence and stimulates their intelligence. In maths, you need to stop and learn new rules all the time. Once you have the basics in programming you're away."
Ryde insists that his approach doesn't mean kids have to study all the time instead of being out and about toturing slugs and doing other normal childhood activities.
"This isn't just a philosophical argument. If, in the last century, the industrial revolution was about natural resources and putting them to use, then this revolution we're in now is about making use of our mental resources."
Ryde may not hold much regard for established educational thinking, but he senses that the tide in educational thought might be moving his way. "The education secretary David Blunkett is saying now that some children are able to take some exams at 10 or 11. We think it should be most children who can take an exam by then. Of course it would mean radically altering methods - the current set-up of home at 3.30 and breaks all over the place would have to go.
"It's nice to know he's got some time for some of this, but obviously, we can't just have a revolution. What we advocate would have to be started as an experiment."
Ryde is definitely a revolutionary but since education is managed by politicians who seem more interested in the administrative side of the system than how it should actually work, maybe it's time for another wide-ranging debate on how children are taught.
This was first published in May 2000