Will a rat race at seven produce results?

“Catching ‘em young” to tap their potential talent may sound great, but how young? A move to target kids as young as seven to prepare them for university life seems more like a form of corporal punishment than a talent hunt, and some have described it as “good intentions gone mad”.

Britain’s Office of Fair Access (Offa), whose job is to ensure that universities provide equal access to everyone despite their economic or social background, has told them to start targeting bright children from disadvantaged families from the age of seven in order to raise their aspirations, and help them develop interest in academic subjects. Currently, many children from poorer backgrounds either don’t aspire for higher education for lack of encouragement and guidance or lose out to their more competitive peers from private schools which spend a lot of time grooming their students for university places. “The evidence is piling up that long-term sustained outreach work is one of the keys to widening participation and fair access. There are a number of pieces of research that back this up,” said Professor Les Ebdon, director of Offa.

He wants universities to run summer schools, mentoring schemes and special “master” classes to reach out to children who may not otherwise aspire to higher education. Sceptics, however, wonder whether pushing children into the life’s “rat race” at an age when they should be left to do their own thing is such a good idea.