Jim Foley, head of an award-winning school, has tightened his focus on the special potential of his pupils. He speaks to Yojana Sharma
Q: What made you aware that a strategy for the gifted and talented was necessary in your school?
A: It goes back to my early teaching career in Manchester. I was inspired by the 1980s Merlin project run by Barry Teare. It provided extra- curricular clubs for able children in comprehensives. I was interested in the idea of able children and how they could flourish. When I became a head in 1993, very quickly I appointed an "able pupil co-ordinator" to identify pupils, talk to parents and push things forward in school. You need to appoint someone so the whole thing becomes more high profile.
Q: Did you have to persuade staff to create a new ethos?
A: Yes. Identification of gifted pupils sent a signal that this was an important issue for us. St Thomas Aquinas is a genuine comprehensive, reflecting the full ability range. The key thing is that there should be no ceiling on potential, and that meeting the needs of the gifted is just as important as special needs. That debate needs to take place in schools. No one argues that special needs should not be catered for, but the same priority is not necessarily accepted for gifted pupils. It can be a stumbling block and you have to get over that.
Q: How do you identify pupils?
A: Gifted and talented is a generic term, but gifted pupils are very different from the talented. David Beckham would have been a talented footballer at school but would not have been gifted. Talented pupils are identified by staff, but can also be self-referred or put forward by parents for assessment. Gifted pupils are also identified by staff but need to meet objective criteria, such as a high cognitive ability test (Cat) score. Increasingly, we work with our partner primaries to identify the gifted and talented well before they come to us.
Q: You seem to prefer keeping gifted pupils in their classrooms. Why is it preferable to separating them?
A: Gifted pupils must be fully stretched in the classroom environment. If the learning is sufficiently challenging, they are in the right place. There is no point in socially segregating them. I believe good comprehensive schools can effectively meet the needs of the most able across a wide ability range. It is essential that teachers effectively differentiate by task within the lesson so all pupils' needs are met.
Q: How did the National Association for Able Children in Education (Nace) Challenge Award change what you do?
A: We had an initial visit from Nace in 2006. They were impressed by our extra-curricular and enrichment provision, but they did not see consistent differentiation in the classroom. It was a sobering message and we had to take it on the chin. We changed our strategy, recognising that 90 per cent of our focus should be on normal mainstream lessons. When Nace returned 18 months later, they saw what they described as a transformation. They were very impressed by the quality of teaching and learning and felt that the needs of the most able - as well as everyone else's - were clearly being met.
Q: What benefits have there been for the school as a whole in pursuing a gifted and talented strategy?
A: The big impact is on teaching and learning. When the most able are being stretched, everybody is being stretched. In the early days, there was a culture in which able children often wanted to keep their heads down and avoid being called a "boffin". Now it is cool to learn, and gifted children are no different in that respect from anyone else.
Q: Has it had an impact on results?
A: Yes - in the sense that the improvement of teaching and learning in the school has been reflected in the upward profile of the exam results. But it has not had a direct impact on the gifted pupils. They will sail through the exam system whether there is a gifted and talented strategy or not. The question is whether every single pupil is achieving their full potential. Exam results alone will not provide the answer for gifted children.
Q: What advice would you give to other schools?
A: Get the philosophy right and concentrate on the classroom.
St Thomas Aquinas School won a Challenge Award in 2007 for excellence in provision for able, gifted and talented pupils.
Name: Jim Foley
Job: Head of St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Birmingham since 1993, a 1,300-pupil mixed comprehensive specialising in maths and computing, with 230 students in the sixth form
Education: BA in English from Newcastle University; PGCE from Manchester Metropolitan University
Career: Started teaching English at St John Plessington Boys' School in Manchester. Became first co-ordinator of the Catholic Partnership in Birmingham in 1988 before becoming head of St Thomas Aquinas
Years in teaching: 31
Interests: Current affairs and Manchester United fan (since 1958). Married to Christina, who is also a teacher. They have three children, all of whom attended St Thomas Aquinas.