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It really can be cool to do well

Seonag MacKinnon on a concerted effort by East Dunbartonshire to overcome the sissy image of achievement among the young.

Three boys shuffled their feet, looked at the floor, then looked at each other, before saying a sheepish "no" to their teacher. He was trying to persuade them to take part in a project for able pupils at Boclair Academy, Bearsden in East Dunbartonshire, but peer pressure among these second-year boys ordains that academic achievement is sissy and swotty. Cool it is not.

Now East Dunbartonshire is aiming to confound this underachieving culture, particularly rife among boys, with a new drive to persuade able pupils to up their game. The hope is that standards throughout the school will rise if excelling in the classroom becomes as cool as it is on the sports field.

On Tuesday a committee consisting primarily of school staff, rather than academics, will present a report and list of proposals to the authority's education committee. Councillors are expected to give the go-ahead to the document entitled Enabling Able Pupils, and to make it available to Her Majesty's Inspectors and any other interested parties beyond the authority's boundaries. Feedback will help influence which measures are put into action.

Director of education Ian Mills does not anticipate any objections from local councillors that the proposals are elitist or that extra resources should not be directed towards youngsters who are likely to do well anyway.

"The financial implications of these measures are pretty small and I do not see us taking away from less able pupils," he says. "It is not an 'either-or' situation."

It is also a question of natural justice, he suggests. "Able children and their parents have the same rights to the best education as less able children from disadvantaged homes." As this authority has one of the highest percentages of graduate parents in the country, he argues that the measures will do no more than meet the needs of the local community.

Councillors are also likely to welcome the report, commissioned by the former convenor of the education committee, as it endorses the principle of comprehensive education.

In meeting the Government's demand for raised standards, East Dunbartonshire is avoiding the creation of different centres of excellence, the path being taken by the neighbouring council of Glasgow. The aim in East Dunbartonshire is for every comprehensive to be able to cater for the needs of all their pupils.

If, as some critics suggest, many Scottish state schools are merely paying lip service to meeting the needs of their brightest pupils, on the assumption that cream will rise to the top anyway, it could be argued that East Dunbartonshire's proposals will make their schools more comprehensive in the service they offer.

Mills does not yet know whether positive encouragement for able pupils will help to attract children who might otherwise be placed in the private sector. "I suspect that links with private schools are often a family tradition. I would hope that youngsters are not there because parents think their local secondary cannot provide a sound academic base."

Campaigners say the case is strong for pro-active encouragement of the more able who make up about 20 per cent of pupils. If they are marginalised and their full potential remains untapped, they can become bored, frustrated or disruptive. At best they do the minimum to keep teachers happy, at worst they cause trouble in the classroom. Mills cites the Standard grade course as one example of a major school fixture which fails to challenge a significant number of pupils.

In 1993 an HMI report on able pupils concluded that their needs were seldom given the same priority as those of pupils with learning difficulties. They were frequently capable of more difficult or challenging tasks than were asked of them. As for extension work, it was often just more of the same core work, with the result that it served as a form of class control rather than any real challenge. The failure in state schools to create a climate which brings out all that bright children have to offer can, claim critics, stunt the children's personal development and perpetuate the correlation between private education and prestigious jobs in later life. It also deprives the country of some of its best talents.

Mills stresses that the proposed measures, which include personal projects, mentoring and out-of-school activities, affect primary as well as secondary, and the focus will not be wholly exam-related. Pointing out that wider knowledge and personal skills have a great bearing on an individual's ultimate success and sense of fulfilment, he says: "In this area we are too orientated towards the God of Higher. We want to look beyond that in developing the more able."

Enabling able pupils

The report's suggestions include: * Personal projects * Mentoring by an older able pupil or a teacher * Withdrawal from class for different learning experiences * Greater use of information technology * Science clubs * Debating and chess clubs * Authority-wide debating event and sports championships * Workshop or weekend in higher education centre * School newspaper * Letter writing competitions * Theatre workshops * Modern language immersion weekend * Young technologists' competition l Youth enterprise * Bands and orchestras

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