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Daring to be different

Broadclyst primary has classes of 50-plus, takes teenagers and welcomes difficult pupils. Phil Revell reports

Name: Broadclyst primary school, Devon

Number of pupils: 350

Proportion eligible for free school meals: 39 per cent

Proportion on special needs register: 27 per cent - down from 54 per cent in 1999

Percentage scoring level 4 or better in KS2 tests 1999: English 78, maths 85, science 93

Percentage scoring level 4 or better in KS2 tests 2004: English 89; maths 94

science 100

Devon's Broadclyst community primary school has had a personalised curriculum for years, pre-dating the promotion by ministers of "personalised learning", though head Peter Hicks grimaces when he hears the phrase.

"Every single child has an individual plan." he says. "We know where students are in terms of performance and where they need to be. If that is personalised learning then that's what we do."

Broadclyst is unusual in lots of ways. This is a school that has never done the literacy hour, where the Year 6 class has 54 children, where each child has a computer, and where many have already been excluded or been unable to cope in other primaries - but do well here.

Sixteen children have statements - the majority for emotional and behavioural disorders. Ten have been excluded from other schools.

Most unorthodox is the policy that Year 6 children move to secondary school only when they are ready to do so, with their parents' agreement.

"We don't hold them back, but they do not move until they are ready. We have eight-year-olds who do the work of 13-year-olds and 13-year-olds who do the work of eight-year-olds. It's about differentiation," says Mr Hicks.

In the mornings children at Broadclyst focus on acquiring skills.

After lunch it is applying skills, where teachers set challenges and activities designed to allow children to use their skills in as many ways as possible.

There is a lot of group-work led by classroom support staff. "The children need a range of inputs from different people," says Mr Hicks. "We know that child A needs this and so does child F and we join them together."

The activity might be recording a CD - in the school's own studio - making up a story, or building a self-powered model car. But whatever the task, teachers choose the group and design the activity to hit as many individual learning targets as possible.

"There is constant assessment; we monitor all the time," says Mr Hicks. His deputy, Jonathan Bishop, explains how the school does it: "Lots of schools have a knowledge-based curriculum. They parcel up the content and deliver it, and then wonder why only the average children are doing well."

At Broadclyst teachers assess children in terms of their national curriculum performance like any other primary. But they do not just look if the child can do the task, but also how well and in what context. There are six levels of performance - from "has had no experience of this", through "applies this in familiar situations directed by the teacher", to the top level, "applies in unfamiliar situations, self-directed".

These assessments are fed into a software system that produces statements for each child. "For number work it might identify that they are able to work in a familiar situation, so what the teacher needs to do is take the concept and put in an unfamiliar situation to move the child on," says Mr Bishop.

That might result in children from several teaching groups joining together in an activity, because they are all at the same stage for that particular task.

This sounds complicated - and it is. Managing the Broadclyst curriculum involves a constantly shifting mosaic of groups and activities. In fact, running it is so time-consuming that Mr Bishop and Mr Hicks are considering moving to a joint headship, where the latter would be principal and the former lead curriculum design. "One person can't do it all," says Mr Bishop.

The results are impressive, but Mr Hicks and Mr Bishop would be appalled to be judged solely on test results. They point to their reputation for handling children with extreme special needs: children excluded from other schools seem to thrive with them.

The school's special needs co-ordinator, Sarah Cooper, puts that down to the individual approach as well. "Often what's being imposed on a child in other schools is something they are not able to achieve," she says. "Not everyone can do XYZ. Fred might be able to do ABC, so why make him try to do something else?"

Some headteachers will be itching to ask how Broadclyst manages to afford all this. Mr Hicks looks slightly non-plussed.

'We just do," he says. "It's necessary, so we do it."

When pressed he concedes that the school's policy of leasing everything - desks, chairs, minibus, computers - results in major savings. But the large class sizes are not about saving money. 'We have the same number of teachers as any other school this size; we just use them in a different way," he says.

Assessment software

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