In a class of their own

Four 11-year-old pupils at a state school in Birmingham will sit their GCSE maths exams this June. `I start from the assumption that all children are potentially gifted'
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Maths at 9.15 on a Monday morning: generations of average school- children have viewed the prospect as only marginally more appealing than a trip to the dentist. But there is nothing average about the top maths group at Grove Primary School in Handsworth, Birmingham. Four of them will take the subject at GCSE this year - at the age of 11.

Peter Nguyen, Anant Patel, Jhoti Patel and Chetan Patel look forward to Monday mornings. They are also looking forward with no apparent trepidation to June, when they will sit down in a small room adjoining the main examination hall at a nearby comprehensive. "It's a challenge and I hope I do well," says Chetan. "But if I don't, there will be plenty more opportunities."

Parents have been broadly supportive. Anant's father, Babu Patel, a British Telecom engineer, thought long and hard before allowing his son to take the exam so early. "We had some reservations," he says. "If it doesn't work out then we don't want him to become deflated. But we have great faith in him and believe he's capable."

His maths teacher, Ann Boyle, who is also deputy head, believes that all four are capable of achieving a grade C this year. The expected grade As are predicted to come early in their secondary school careers. After that, she says, they can concentrate on other subjects.

Jhoti, Chetan, Peter and Anant were spotted early. They were just eight when they were moved into a maths class alongside children aged nine, 10 and 11. Today they are the venerable old hands of the group. A new generation of eight-year-olds are in there with them, prodding calculators furiously and thrusting their hands in the air to answer Mrs Boyle's quick- fire questions.

Dr David Winkley, headteacher for the past 18 years, has no qualms about mixing children from years four, five and six. It is part of the flexibility he seeks in an effort to break through conventional structures and give each child the individual attention he or she needs. Dr Winkley is a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and a co-founder, with Richard Hoggart, of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham.

"Putting primary school children in for GCSE is not something we would want to do regularly," he says. "But we wanted to give out a public message that inner-city kids are capable of achieving very high levels at an early age."

Yet for most of these children English is a second language when they arrive at school. Of the 700 children in Grove's nursery, infant and junior sections, only 4 per cent are white.

Dr Winkley insists that low achievers receive considerable attention in groups of six to eight. "We don't want to label children as gifted or not. I start from the assumption that all children are potentially gifted. It's not about demarcation lines. It's about taking them on a journey. These four who are sitting GCSE have gone the furthest so far, but others will get there in the end."

They certainly will if Ann Boyle has anything to do with it. Her Monday morning maths lesson is played out in an atmosphere of controlled excitement. Correct answers are extravagantly praised, good tries given ample encouragement. There are no sarcastic put-downs.

Mrs Boyle is careful to involve all 28 in the group (normally there are 32), including the youngest. "I'm watching all the time to see if somebody hasn't got a clue," she says later. "Then I lead them in to the conversation. We talk about maths all the time and encourage them to discuss it among themselves. The younger ones are challenged by being with the older children. They like solving difficult problems. There is no reason why maths should be boring."

Is there not a good chance, though, that treading water at secondary school might be rather boring for children who have swum so far ahead of the tide at primary level?

"That's no argument for holding them back. Secondary schools should be able to cater for children of all abilities," Mrs Boyle says.

Peter and Anant have secured assisted places at King Edward's School, one of the country's top independent schools, across the city in Edgbaston. Chetan passed the entrance exam, but his mother wants him to go to a grammar school nearer home. Jhoti is on the waiting list after taking the entrance exam for King Edward's. "My English let me down a bit," she says. "The maths was easy."