Everyone's happy with the A-team

Selection in state schools is back on the agenda. Judith Judd explains why, and Lesley Gerard meets an lite girls' stream in a low- income area
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Reading Girls' School was the first comprehensive to be given ministerial approval to become partially selective. The decision meant survival.

That was in February 1993. Two years earlier, the school, then known as Southlands, had narrowly escaped merger by opting out. But by 1992, rolls were continuing to fall and the exam pass rate was poor. Only 14 per cent of pupils got five or more GCSEs; the brightest girls were siphoned off by a nearby grammar school.

By the time the new head, Jenefer Espejo, arrived in September 1992, governors were already considering a radical cure-all to change the academic and social mix of pupils. They favoured a plan to become partially selective and to introduce testing at 11.

The prospect of creating an lite stream, admitting higher achievers from further afield to a school whose traditional catchment area covered a disadvantaged area of Reading, horrified some but inspired others.

Critics accused the school of attempting to become a grammar school "by the back door'' and said less able children would feel they were failures because they had not made the A-team.

Mrs Espejo, an unashamed advocate of selective teaching, says: "The school is in a low-income area. Our intake was skewed towards those with low ability. We had to do something drastic to broaden our ability range.''

That first year, around 50 children sat National Foundation for Educational Research tests. Twenty were accepted. The following year, 30 were given places in the top stream; half of these were local children.

Other reforms followed. The name was changed in the summer of 1993, and a formal uniform was introduced. This year, the exam pass rate has been hauled up to 24 per cent.

Ruth Allen, head of maths and co-ordinator of the stream, says it has given both girls and teachers something to aspire to. Children whose studies are progressing well can transfer up to the top group without taking the test. This happened in five cases last year.

"Before, there was clear expectation of under-achievement. Our people felt a sense of not being able to do things and acceptance of a mediocre standard,'' she says.

For core curriculum subjects, girls are separated into a top stream, which is also taught classics. All other subjects are taught in mixed ability groups.

Mrs Espejo says: "There was a danger that we could be cultivating a privileged group of prima donnas. The curriculum had to be co-ordinated to include social as well as intellectual mixing.

She insists the risk of bullying and bitchiness is no worse than in any other girls' school and believes it is possible to avoid making other pupils feel inferior by praising success at every level. "Children are not scared of competition. They enjoy it.''

Girls in the selective stream are positive about their teachers, and enthusiastic about lessons. They complain of too much homework and the absence of boys.

Alex Wall, 12, travels from Bracknell, a 30-minute car journey. Her mother, Bridget Wall, says: "Alex is very academic, and good at maths and science. I wanted her to attend a girls' school and to be taught traditionally male subjects by women. It is important that she attends a multi-ability, multi-ethnic school.

"She should be exposed to different cultures and religions. It will help her to realise that people have different talents and academia is not the be-all and end-all."

Most of Alex's friends are in the top stream. "Some are in the other group, but you tend to see more of the people in this one. No one bullies you. She calls me swotty,'' she says, pointing to a girl sitting two seats away, "but she's my best friend.''

Haleema Akram, 12, and her twin, Sofia, are in the A-stream. "I have friends in the other group, and sometimes they get a bit fussy and uptight because we are learning Latin,'' says Haleema.

"Really, they shouldn't worry, because Latin is really boring. They are not missing anything.''