How does the child feel about it? "Disillusioned", one girl said to me this week. Rapidly losing interest. As disillusioned as the child who has been told she cannot play badminton at her school for another four years, despite being Birmingham's under-13 badminton champion at the age of 11. (It is not just maths where we fail to run with the ball: sport, dance, drama and technology are also on the list.) Maybe more selection might be an answer, but it is interesting that selective schools are amongst the worse offenders. Some of our grammar schools are teaching 11-year- olds way behind their attainment level. Children who already have GCSE are wading through simple negative numbers mastered three years previously, despite the fact that other schools somehow manage to create flexi-organisational arrangements to set a pace that matches the child's ability - such as the school which took in two of our 11-year-olds with GCSE maths, and immediately put them on to an AO course.
The problem partly seems to rest with a national obsession with age-related examinations. If level 4 is your bench-mark for the average 11-year-old, the criteria for primary league tables, why bother with children who can already cope with level 6 or beyond? If you know that the child at a highly selective grammar school is one among the 90 per cent who are certain to get A grades at GCSE at 16, why fuss about the few who could get the same grade four years early?
Curiously, we seem to respond to music differently from other subjects. One child who left us last year with perfect pitch and a talent for the trumpet found her secondary school at once arranged free school trumpet and piano lessons, which has really impressed her. Who would think of putting a child at Grade 8 back on Grade 2 for a few years "so that the others can catch up"? Maybe music, with its long-established, non-age- related assessment system through Royal College grades, and a teaching system that has a clear antenna for what children can do, is a model we should look at more closely.
It is easy to understand the resistance. One secondary teacher told us that his staff were opposed to primary accelerated learning programmes because they could not see the point. Why was it necessary to move a child so fast? Such children - and there are many of them - are a nuisance not only to traditional timetabling arrangements, but also to multi-ability whole-class teaching systems in year seven, the first year of secondary school, and maybe to the examination system itself. After all, many of them will get an A at GCSE and maybe at A-level, even with a year or two of lackadaisical teaching. If they have not got tired of the freewheeling, that is.
The more you look at advanced learners, the more you feel we have hardly begun to tap their potential. From time to time at Grove School, a theoretical physicist runs a series of sessions in atomic physics with 10- and 11- year-olds, the idea being to stimulate an early interest in the subject, given our dismal national record. So confident are these 30 children with the maths involved that he has moved on to give them some components of first-year undergraduate work, using Feynman's introductory lectures as the start. Visitors, witnessing this, are usually not quite able to believe what they are seeing.
Yet, with the advent of advanced modes of information technology, soon children everywhere may be able to access learning programmes of immense power and variety. If we are to mine this potential in a way that goes beyond eccentric experiment in a small number of schools, then we need to ask some probing questions about our current practice, starting with an understanding of what all children might do given the right environment, and then genuinely matching institutional arrangements and teaching programmes to the needs of the talents we uncover. The interesting thing is that at the end of the day the talented, to our surprise, may turn out to be most of us.
The author is headteacher of the Grove School, a state primary in Handsworth, a multi-ethnic, inner-city area of Birmingham.Reuse content