The best and the brightest

Lucy Hodges looks at a programme to keep able pupils from opting for selection
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The Independent Online
Faced with the prospect of losing some of his cleverest pupils to schools opting for more selection, headteacher David Boatman decided to act. He launched an able students project - a systematic attempt to cater for the best and brightest - at Saffron Walden county high school in Essex, a grant-maintained comprehensive set next to some of the prettiest countryside in England.

"I wanted to be able to demonstrate to my satisfaction and everyone else's that we were doing an outstandingly good job for able students," he says. "Clearly, the problem for all-ability schools is selection. I wanted to do all I conceivably could to prevent our situation being affected by that."

Mr Boatman is a smart thinker. He knows that no school, however good, can afford to be complacent, especially in the changing political climate of the late 20th century. And Saffron Walden is widely recognised as a good comprehensive, bubbling with success - GCSE pass rate 56 per cent last year, expected to climb to 68 per cent this year - and boasting carefully tended flower beds and sparkling wooden floors. Its sixth form is exceptional, with 13 to 14 students applying to Oxford and Cambridge each year.

But in nearby Bishop's Stortford another grant-maintained school had been trying to increase selection to 50 per cent of its intake. This was a potential threat to the 1,650-pupil Saffron Walden. Without its quota of bright children, it would sink down the league table. In the event, the threat disappeared when the school was denied permission to boost selection, but Saffron Walden believes that the threat won't go away forever. Hence the new initiative.

Today's political climate - the emphasis on parental choice and dividing children up, as well as increasing parental expectations - is putting the squeeze on all-ability schools. Another comprehensive that has joined Saffron Walden in its project for the most able is Hayes School in Bromley, the authority which contains two wholly selective schools, one of them St Olave's, to which Labour's health spokeswoman, Harriet Harman, sends a son. Mr Boatman is a long-time friend of the headteacher at Hayes School. They run similar establishments and face similar problems, so they have decided to make common cause.

"We have bright kids coming into the school and we wanted to make sure we were doing our best by them," says Karen Bastick-Styles, deputy head of the 200-pupil Hayes. "We have become more and more aware that if we want to remain truly comprehensive and not second-rate schools we have to do our best by everyone. To keep a true mixed-ability intake we need to be seen to be proactive."

Both schools identified the top 20 to 25 per cent of pupils in the first, third and fourth year of secondary school - years seven, nine and 10 - and gave them a questionnaire asking whether they enjoyed school, found lessons interesting, and were sufficiently stretched. Students were asked which type of work they most and least enjoyed doing.

Parents of bright children in Saffron Walden were also polled and 21 per cent of the parents of 11-year-olds remarked on the lack of challenge in the lower school.

The results, which are about to be acted upon, threw up some interesting results. The overwhelming majority of children were positive about school, but at Saffron Walden there was some concern that bright 11-year-old boys seemed less enthusiastic than other able pupils.

Pupils were strongly in favour of having more choice in what they did in lessons. Not surprisingly, their least favourite activity was copying notes from the board.

"What came through very, very strongly as a consistent pattern was the students' desire to be creative, to investigate and discover and draw their own conclusions" says Bob Crossan, Saffron Walden's research and development officer, who teaches politics, history and general studies. The bright pupils in Year 9 were particularly enthusiastic about history because they had just completed projects on World War One and had enjoyed the discussion, research and group work involved.

That finding has implications for teachers. Traditionally bright children have been seen as "low-maintenance" - the sort of pupils to whom you can give a textbook or worksheet and tell them to get on with it. The less able were the ones who were thought to need extra effort and stimulation.

Hayes School came up with the same result. "Bright kids need the stimulation of lots of exciting things," says Ms Bastick-Styles. "They like working in groups and they like discussion."

At Hayes, the staff followed up the questionnaires with in-depth interviews with selected bright pupils and asked some students to keep diaries of their days at school.

The children said they wanted more opportunity to exercise responsibility in school and to be involved in discussion groups.

The school has introduced a mentoring system in Year 11 and will be working next term on how teachers can incorporate techniques for able children into their teaching. Saffron Walden is looking at how to make fuller use of the sixth form to stimulate the most able as well as at how to make homework more challenging and whether to provide extra textbooks for further homework research.