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Point taken

Diana Hinds reports on an experiment in fast-tracking.

Point Quote Explain" are the words writ large over the whiteboard in Keziah Featherstone's classroom, and the lesson has been well learned by her Year 11 English class. This morning they are sharpening their critical wits on poems by Carol Ann Duffy and they are in no doubt as to how to proceed.

In class discussion, they make light work of analysing a poem entitled "The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team", identifying how a sense of promise at the beginning of the poem turns gradually to regret.

Then, in pairs, they pore over further poems by the same author, preparing to "teach" one of these to their classmates and to compare the poems as a group with the help of a box-filling activity.

Technically, this class of 30 should be sitting their GCSE in English literature this summer. But instead, all 30 will be taking AS English, along with 30 other pupils in Year 11. Last year, all 60 of them passed GCSE a year early. Next year, a good many of them are already planning to study for A2.

All of this has come about through a fast-tracking English project devised by Keziah, an English teacher at Woodrush High School in Hollywood, Birmingham, in collaboration with the head of English, Gareth Lloyd.

Woodrush, a 1,000-strong comprehensive, was looking for ways of improving results and boosting motivation (particularly among disaffected boys), as well as encouraging more pupils to stay on into the sixth-form.

Keziah had already contemplated fast-tracking and received funding for the project through a Best Practice Research Scholarship from the Department for Education and Skills. She started in September 2001 with the 60 most able pupils from a year group of 180.

In Year 9, staff had found this group exceptionally difficult. But once in Year 10, the two top sets knuckled down to some hard work for GCSE English literature and surprised everyone with their results, many of them exceeding their predicted mark by one or two grades.

Such was their success that Woodrush is now continuing the experiment with the whole of the present Year 10, all of whom will sit GCSE English literature this month.

This might sound little short of miraculous. In reality, there is no especial magic being worked at Woodrush. The project has simply concentrated on some of the requisites of good, modern teaching and learning: a sharp focus, a concern with higher-order thinking skills, an accommodation of different learning styles, and a requirement for pupils to take responsibility for their own learning.

In the classroom, this translates into what Keziah describes as "a safe but risk-taking environment, where the teacher does not always know best, and where students are encouraged to explore texts in a mature and responsible way, working collaboratively and supporting each other's learning".

A variety of strategies is on offer to help pupils structure their work, such as mind maps, brainstorming sessions, examination and assessment details, and boxes and grids in which to analyse texts.

The boys have responded particularly well, she says, to short deadlines, short-term rewards and work broken up into manageable chunks.

Pupils not only discuss their work with one another, but sometimes read and mark one another's essays. They are also expected to get much more of the reading done on their own at home rather than have the teacher take them through every set book, page by page.

Pupils found this hard to begin with, says Gareth. "But because they had to get involved with the books themselves, it now means they are much more able to come up with their own ideas because they feel more comfortable with the books. Now that they have the skills, you can put any text in front of them and with a bit of reminding and prodding they know what to do."

A number of Year 11 pupils admit they felt nervous at first about the idea of being fast-tracked.

"It was a surprise - we didn't realise we could do it," says Harjat, 16, now engrossed with Gareth's class in David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars.

Nicola and Laura, both 15 and earnestly discussing Carol Ann Duffy, are converts to the fast-tracking approach: "Two years is too long to do a GCSE," says Nicola. "You're more focused doing it in a year."

"Everything is a lot fresher in your mind, and you work harder because you know you've got less time to do it," agrees Laura. "We have been taught different ways, like using mind maps, and it gets easier. You take part more than in a normal English lesson; there's more discussing, not just writing things down."

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