'We find talent and give the children confidence'

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The Independent Online
The extent to which Grove Junior School is an anomaly, is best demonstrated by the first two things visitors will see.

One is the heavy steel shutters that pull down over every door and window; testament to the most recent riots and a local burglary epidemic that is "going through the roof".

The other is a photocopied letter pinned to the noticeboard, dated October 1995, from a passenger on a local bus who says he has just watched three pupils in succession give up their seats to adults.

"I would like to thank you and congratulate you for the example of good behaviour and courtesy shown by your pupils," it says.

Grove Junior, as Tony Blair has apparently noticed, is no ordinary inner city local authority school. Four of its 11-year-old pupils are taking GCSEs while five have gone on to Oxford and Cambridge. Every week a hundred of its 730 pupils voluntarily attend the Children's University on Saturdays, some of them travelling across Birmingham to do so.

Not bad for one of the most economically deprived areas of the midlands. Especially when many of its pupils are those who have already been expelled from other schools.

On entering the school buildings - set one on each side of a run down red brick terraced street - it is clear that Grove Junior refused to be a product of its environment. The walls are lined with paintings and poetry, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming and pupils and teachers talk animatedly in the corridoors.

"The thing everybody notices about this school is that we have developed a culture in which children can actively participate. They know they are listened to," said Dr David Winkley, the school's headmaster for 20 years.

"Where they come from is irrelevant. All we're doing is identifying talent and giving children the confidence and self-belief to ensure they use it."

It is this, in particular the school's practice of providing "fast-track" teaching for children who show aptitude for certain subjects, that has most attracted Tony Blair's attention.

Dr Winkley is keen to emphasise that "fast-tracking" and its remedial opposite "learning support groups" are restricted only to subjects.

"We are not streaming children and taking them away from their peers for the whole of the day, but offering children with the talent in specific areas the chance to challenge themselves.

"We've got support groups and fast-track, yes, but they're in a context in which the children can feel positive about themselves," Dr Winkley added.

And many of these children have good reason not to. Some, he said, had severe behavioural difficulties having been sexually abused or experienced violence at home.

"They're very difficult children with an awful lot of problems," he said. To help them, the school has employed the first trained counsellor to head a specialist unit in a junior school to give the children intensive support.

The positive attitude of the other pupils, he says, tended to rub off on them eventually. "It's infectious," he said.

Grove Junior was not always such an education paragon. Twenty years ago, when Dr Winkley took it on, it had suffered "all sorts of problems".

"I don't think anyone else wanted the job," he says modestly.

"He turned it around," said one member of staff. "This is the worst bit of Handsworth but it's a lovely atmosphere in here, especially considering the backgrounds of some of the kids."

This is reiterated by the children themselves, most of whom come from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Shantelle Simpson, 11, said she looked forward to coming to school.

"The other kids are friendly and the staff are nice," she said.

She had been moved into fast track maths which was good, she said. It isn't her favourite subject, though.

"That's English," she said. "We're doing philosophy and how to construct an argument."