WERE you able to read Latin when you were six? Adam Dent was. But then you probably were not accepted for a degree course at a university when you were 12. Adam, one of the world's latest child prodigies, leaves home this October to start reading for a degree in chemistry at St Hugh's College, Oxford in England. He is just one of many gifted children worldwide who are going to university at a younger age. Michael Tan last year became the world's youngest undergraduate when he started his degree course in Canterbury, New Zealand, aged 10. His sister, a relatively late starter in life, is now reading for her PhD in Cambridge, aged 19. Several countries in Asia including Singapore, Korea and Taiwan already have accelerated education programmes, as does the United States. But Hong Kong is only now waking up to the existence of gifted children. The Government has just announced, four years after the fourth Education Report made recommendations calling for the greater facilitation of education for such pupils, a pilot scheme involving 40 teachers in 20 schools. In the first year, 120 gifted children from Primary Three, Four and Five will be identified. The second year will focus on Primary One, Two and Six. But the scheme has already been criticised as inadequate by the territory's experts on gifted children. With interest focused on this particular area, the Government may broaden its initiative. Before long, those children who progress through the scheme, may be knocking on the doors of the territory's universities whose rigid historical age restrictions are likely to come under scrutiny. Kwok Chun-wing is the youngest person to be admitted to a degree course in the territory of late. Last year aged 17 years and 10 months he started his course in biochemistry at the Hong Kong University. It is a title which he gained largely by default, moving up a year at school when he moved to another district. All four of Hong Kong's universities admission offices declare that entry will only be considered in exceptional cases for students under the age of 18. No one has ever tried. There is intense debate within Hong Kong's gifted children movement over any possible move towards a more flexible education system where ability, not age, is the deciding criterion in university admissions policies. Anna Hui, executive officer of the Centre for Child Development at the Hong Kong Baptist College, believes that so long as the child is socially mature then he or she should be allowed to go to university. ''If the child is very gifted and he or she can manage it, why not?'' A source in the Hong Kong University's admissions office supported this view. ''I think it would be a good thing. There are different kinds of people. So long as they have reached the right academic standard, theoretically I don't see that there is a problem. I don't believe that age should be the determining factor.' Fred Lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Association for Parents of Gifted Children, has just returned from the 3rd Asian-Pacific Federation Conference on Gifted and Talented Children. The territory, in his opinion, lies lamentably behind most countries in the region. Some experts though, believe that Hong Kong's alleged backwardness in this area, is in fact, well-informed restraint and points to the dangers of pushing a child too far too fast. It is a view backed by the World Council on Gifted and Talented Children which, says member Dr Raymond Wu, does not have a policy of changing university admissions to accept children at a younger age. ''We don't believe that policy is in the interests of the individual or society,'' said Dr Wu, a former Education Commission member and chairman of the organising committee for the 11th World Conference on Gifted and Talented Children due to be held next summer in Hong Kong. ''We in Hong Kong tend to adopt an integrated approach and believe in total development rather than sectorial development. We also believe in mutual enhancement among schoolmates.' Ruth Lau Wing-Mun, principal inspector of the Education Departments special education unit, agrees. ''We would not like to rob a 12-year-old of the opportunity to mix with his peers. They have to work very hard, even though they are gifted.'' This voice of restraint echoes the findings of a conference on child prodigies in America last year. Dr Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School fuelled the debate when he released research which showed that child geniuses were likely to be destructive, have masochistic and sadistic tendencies and burn out early. This might give Adam Dent something to ponder on when he enters the college bar on his first night at university, to buy his Coca Cola, surrounded by students more than five years older than him. Dr Jimmy Chan, President of the Hong Kong Psychological Society, doesn't think he will suffer. ''I don't think there is any hard and fast evidence for this. In general I do not think that this has been confirmed. Clearly ordinary people are just as likely to suffer from psychological problems as gifted children. Some children are able to cope with an adult environment very well.' Fred Lam, who has a gifted child of his own, supports Dr Chan and believes that the danger of the child experiencing psychological troubles would only arise when the child became a product of parental ambitions and loses control of his or her own progress. The child, Mr Lam believes, must be consulted at every stage of its development. His daughter Crystal is now aged 12. She attends St Mary's Canossian School but takes extra classes during the holidays. She is a gifted scientist, linguist and musician who hopes to be a doctor Her parents have always let their child develop at her own pace and have not pushed Crystal to excessive limits. Instead they have adopted a counselling role, helping Crystal to come to terms with her giftedness. Crystal is keen to go to university at a younger age, probably before 16, like her niece in the United States who graduated in science at the age of 18. ''I would like to go to university earlier because I want to satisfy my quest for knowledge.'' She is confident that she will be able to retain friends her own age and says her other gifted friends share her desire to start their degree courses before the age of 17. There have been many other success stories from around the world. Audrey Tan, who is now at Cambridge University working on her PhD aged 19, believes strongly that an accelerated education, leading to her graduation before she was 18, was the best thing for her. When she made her decision to go to university, she says, she did so because she thought she could cope with it academically and socially. ''I can see that there may be problems with being socially accepted but who says the school's policy is best?'' Dr Keith Garrett, Adam Dent's admissions tutor, is undaunted by the future confronting his youngest undergraduate and defends his college's policy on gifted children. ''I'm told that Adam is a very ordinary boy of 13 with all the interests associated with a boy of that age. I am sure that he will enjoy all the attention devoted to him at Oxford. I suppose in coming to university at his age, you are missing out on some things and gaining on others, but we miss out on things whatever we do.''