By Marc Lourdes
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: Most children his age started Year Five yesterday. Ainan Cawley, aged 10, however, announced that he would begin an American degree programme at a local college.
Surprising? Not if you know what Ainan, nicknamed "the world's cleverest 10-year-old", is capable of.
At 7, he became the youngest child in the world to pass the GCE O-level chemistry paper.
Aged 8, he started degree-level chemistry courses at a polytechnic in Singapore, with most of his modules being third-year options.
At 9, he completed his O-level physics and A-level chemistry.
In September 2008, he also set a world age record for memorising the value of pi, to 518 digits, reciting them from memory.
And now, Ainan will be mixing with students almost twice his age at HELP University College as he juggles a rigorous roster of computer science classes, as well as chemistry, A-level physics and mathematics and liberal arts subjects.
The lad, of Irish-Malay parentage, decided to pursue his degree in Malaysia after his family hit dead ends trying to find suitable education for him in Singapore.
His father, Valentine Cawley, said the family "tried very hard" to get the right educational experiences for Ainan in Singapore.
"We wrestled with the system there for almost three years. But in the end, we found the system too inflexible and too unwilling to make exceptions to accommodate Ainan satisfactorily," he said.
They didn't have to search far -- or for long -- to find a solution.
The family contacted National Association of Gifted Children of Malaysia president Zuhairah Ali for advice.
Cawley described it as "the best thing" they could have done, as it took her only a week to secure offers of places for Ainan at university colleges in Malaysia.
"We were pleasantly surprised by the speed and warmth of the response to Ainan in Malaysia.
"In fact, we were startled, having become accustomed to the very slow response in Singapore," he said at a press conference at HELP University College here yesterday.
Cawley said they chose HELP because of its high standards and low costs, as well as the willingness of its senior staff to understand Ainan's unusual educational needs and to meet them.
"HELP is very flexible with which courses Ainan can take and so he is able to match his interests closely.
"Finally, the atmosphere on the campus is warm and welcoming. All in all, we think it was a good choice to allow Ainan to grow in the many directions he wishes to in the next few years."
Cawley said it was normal for education systems and for schools to fail to provide a suitable education for gifted children.
"The common thinking is that gifted children are so smart that they need no special help. This fails to understand that the smarter the child is, the more they can learn and so, the more they must be given the chance to learn."
He said prodigies needed not just special enrichment classes but a chance to reach their potential and grow as far and as fast as they can.
"Should they be restrained by a conventional education system in which each child is taught the same material at each age, then the gifted child will become bored, frustrated and will turn away from education altogether," said Cawley, for whom the study and discussion of child prodigies is something of a labour of love.