Break down the age barrier

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Risk-taking headteacher mixes up her pupils by ability - and it works. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: Bridgemary community school, Gosport, Hants School type: 11-16 comprehensive Results: Improved from 25 per cent of students gaining five or more A* to Cs at GCSE in 2004, to 33 per cent in 2005 Proportion of pupils claiming free school meals: 14 per cent

Visit Bridgemary community school and you become aware that something is missing, but can't quite place it. Then it dawns on you - there is no bell at the end of lessons. They just end and the students move on.

Headteacher Cheryl Heron silenced the bell three years ago and says the corridors are now much calmer. This is just one small illustration of her willingness to try new ideas.

Another much more radical departure from tradition began in September - Bridgemary got rid of year groups and began mixing students of different ages, teaching them according to ability rather than age. It is understood to be the first English secondary to do this.

Since then its switchboard has been inundated with calls from TV companies clamouring to film its mixed-age classes. "A Richard and Judy producer said to us, 'Has she signed an exclusivity contract?' " says Mrs Heron, rolling her eyes. "Oh please!"

Her move, announced last April, generated much publicity, and some controversy as educationists voiced concern that the approach is untested.

Mrs Heron is exasperated by such responses. "One of the things that infuriates me when I read the press - they go out and ask people what they think about what we're doing, quite rightly. A common answer is that we shouldn't try things out because we haven't done them before. Why not? If we don't do it, who will?"

You only have to look at Bridgemary's circumstances to take her point. The school is an 11-16 comprehensive in the heart of a poor, white, working-class estate in Gosport, a former Navy town in Hampshire. Around a quarter of parents have no educational qualifications and 40 per cent of its pupils have special educational needs. Fourteen per cent claim free school meals, though the entitlement is closer to 30 per cent.

The school was failing when Mrs Heron became head four years ago - months after her arrival it was placed in serious weaknesses by Ofsted. Its GCSE results have been poor - in 2001 just 26 per cent of students gained five or more grades A*-C. The figure was still in the mid-20s by 2004, though this summer results went up to 33 per cent.

Mrs Heron describes herself as a maverick, willing to take risks. "I have never been in for a quick fix," she says. "I always said to my governors that this school will change, but we wouldn't see that change for four to seven years."

One step in her radical five-stage plan was to overhaul the key stage 4 curriculum, allowing students to "pick and mix" subjects. They do 25 core lessons and can opt for 25 more, choosing from a wide range of academic and vocational qualifications.

Another step was to get rid of the pastoral system, bringing in what the school calls "vertical learning mentor groups", putting students in Years 7 and 8, and in Years 9, 10 and 11, together for peer mentoring.

Teaching according to ability rather than age was a logical next step, says the head. "It was an idea I had four years ago when I first saw this place.

Why do we have to put kids into boxes? Why do we have to fit around a system that's been here for so long? Is it because it's easier for us?"

Children have been tested to gauge their ability and each has an individual learning programme. They are then put into teaching groups according to their ability level. Instead of traditional year groups, the school has five levels - access, entry level, and levels one, two and three, corresponding to the national curriculum framework.

The school has started this new system with just a quarter of its students out of their age groups. For example, children of 12 have been mixing with 13 and 14-year-olds in English groups to take their key stage 3 national tests.

Trialling elements of it last year, half of its Year 9s entered early for PE at GCSE, resulting in a 100 per cent pass rate. Sixty-three per cent gained A*-C grades.

One criticism of Bridgemary's approach is that while fast-tracking able youngsters may well boost their self-esteem and motivation, for older children put with younger ones it could have the opposite effect.

Mrs Heron says they are careful about the language they use, and never talk about pupils being put down a class. And regular assessments allow children to find their own level.

"If a child is ready to move up, they will move up. We have already had movement from access to entry level after three weeks.

"The system is not perfect - what system is when you first start it? But if you don't start it, you're never going to know."

Claire Crane, head of English, says it has boosted her students'

confidence. Last year the school piloted an AS-level English group.

Thirteen girls took it, all passed, more than half achieved C or above and two got As. The department is now trialling teaching separate groups of boys and girls.

"Motivation for staff and pupils alike has soared," she said.

Next year Cheryl Heron and her leadership team will begin the latest radical phase of the school's long-term development plan - to move the school towards "247 learning", opening it up to the community and offering learning at times to suit students.

She sees no reason why the timetable cannot be tailored. "If you have a child who hates getting up until 11am, and can't get into school because school starts at this time, why do we have to keep punishing them, being negative, giving them late detentions because they can't get into school?

"If a child's best time for learning is 5 o'clock in the evening, why can't we fit in around them?"

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