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Thursday, April 15, 2021

14-year-old Benjamin Francis begins a bachelor’s degree

A gap year backpacking Europe was never on the cards for the 2020 dux of St Edmund’s College, 14-year-old Benjamin Francis, who is in the first weeks of a bachelor’s degree.

“This trimester I’m doing applied physics, calculus, biology and chemistry,” he says.

The ability to study online helped Benjamin work around requirements for tertiary students under the age of 17 to be accompanied by a parent on campus, and he says he wasn’t keen to wait two years to get cracking.

“I’m very competitive, not just with other people but also with myself; I really want to do well at things.

“So that’s sort of what keeps me driven, to keep studying and doing stuff.”

Benjamin is preparing for top level piano exams.

Benjamin began extension activities halfway through primary school, although he remained in his assigned year group until grade six. 

After primary school, he skipped to year nine and then bypassed another grade to begin year 11 at just 12 years of age.   

Benjamin’s mother, Susan Francis, says her eldest son “never really had to learn anything” during childhood.

“He started school reading chapter books, and so, everything came really easily,” she says.

Benjamin has two younger brothers, who, Susan explains, are also accelerated students.

“There’s all these amazing things, as a parent, you learn from your information child!”

Susan says she was initially hesitant about Benjamin studying alongside teenagers up to five years his senior at a school best known for its excellence on the rugby field.

But accelerated students are not uncommon at St Edmund’s, where school principal Joe Zavone began expanding the gifted and talented program four years ago.

“We certainly don’t believe that students should be educated according to their age; they need to be educated according to what academic level they’ve reached at that point,” he says.

“There’s no set surety that this will work, academically or socially. We’re upfront with families that it may not work.

“But we’ve only had to go to plan B once or twice here, because the boys just find a niche, and they work well within their niche.”

Benjamin was one of two radically accelerated students in St Edmund’s top 10 ATAR group in 2020.

The St Edmund’s principal tells his teachers not to expect accelerated students to get straight As, and staff were supportive when some of Benjamin’s grades dipped at the beginning of year 11.

Susan says it was a good experience for her son, who had previously “flown through everything”, to learn that lower grades were not a disaster.

Understanding the ups and downs of being ahead of the curve helps Benjamin with his casual job as a tutor of accelerated students at his past primary school, Canberra Christian School.

“I have a group of year five students who, a whole day one day a week, I take out,” he says.

“They get taken out of the classroom and we spend the day doing a whole bunch of STEM activities.

“I have the privilege of sort of being able to get inside their minds a little bit, and sort of know what they’d be interested in and what they need.”

As a seven-year-old, Benjamin dreamed of becoming a real estate agent or a brain surgeon, but during college he settled on a new path after completing work experience in medical physics and radiation engineering at Canberra Hospital.

“Medical physics is sort of like this perfect match of all the stuff that I love – the very technical physics and maths related stuff as well as the helping people in medicine.”

Although he says he didn’t allocate much time for socialising outside of school hours, Benjamin has happy memories of a “mock pilgrimage” to the local shops with a big group of college boys every lunchtime.

He says he found friends among people studying his favourite subjects, and his age was only an inconvenience when he was the only one without a driver’s licence.

“Other than that, there wasn’t too much in terms of age that stopped us from being friends, really at all.”

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