Is it possible to cater for clever children while serving the majority? Josephine Gardiner visited a school that is having a good try.
When Matthew Powell was first asked whether he would like to do some "extension work", the 13-year-old's first thought was that he must have done something wrong. "I was called out of English one day. I was really panicking, " he remembers.
Matthew now realises that extension studies are not a punishment, but a chance for the more able students at Ivybridge Community College, a large comprehensive near Plymouth in Devon, to develop latent talents and explore depths of knowledge and experience that the national curriculum cannot plumb. But like his friends on the school's able students' programme, he retains a down-to-earth insouciance about his intellectual assets.
"Some of my friends can't understand why I volunteer to do extra work, " he says. Others, from outside the school, apparently equate "extension" with "detention". "They think I must be really thick," Matthew laughs.
Matthew, Alice, Clare, Mark, and the other Ivybridge pupils identified by their teachers as potentially very able, defy the popular myths about clever or "gifted" children. They are not interested in comparing IQ scores, display no particular relish at being singled out from the common herd and do not waste time agonising over the implications of being members of an elite. What they really want to talk about is their work during the extension classes, which take place after school on Tuesdays.
Clare Gledhill had unearthed an interest in archaeology. "We helped an archaeologist dig up his back garden and learnt how to classify and display the stuff properly," she explains. Matthew and Alice both opted for "News and Views" and emerged with a healthy scepticism about media prorities. "After watching a few videos of news meetings we saw that it was just a case of what the news editor wanted to put in - people would rather read about Hugh Grant's affairs than someone getting an Oscar," Matthew says.
Mark showed me a copy of his newspaper, the Tudor Times, a witty and imaginative read dated November 13, 1588. On page 1, "Fantastic Victory for Drake"; on page 2, "Ye weather, ye latest executions and heretics". Several pupils also write, edit and lay out a page of news which appears regularly in the local paper, the Plymouth Herald.
Other after-hours modules have included industrial problem-solving and forensic science, in which the pupils were taken blindfolded into the country to the scene of a "crime" and left to solve it (it was sheep-rustling), using map-reading skills to guess where they were.
The question of what constitutes intelligence and how (or if) it can be measured has been fiercely debated for decades. Rather than wrangle endlessly over how to identify bright pupils, the strategy at Ivybridge is to concentrate on providing challenging work for the children, then stepping back and waiting to see if they respond. This approach follows guidelines set out by the National Association for Able Children in Education, and advice from a 1992 Her Majesty's Inspectorate report which suggested there was little advantage in being too precise about cut-off points between high and average ability. The programme aims at the top 20 per cent, rather than the tiny proportion of children with genius-level IQs.
Ivybridge's principal Geoffrey Rees decided in 1992 to join NACE's network of schools with a policy for able children. Biology teacher Derek Battersby has been responsible for co-ordinating the scheme. "It's important to maintain a fluid definition of ability," he says. "I ask the subject tutors whether there is anyone in their year group who would benefit from the programme. We're all good at something, it's a question of finding out what that is." The identification process focuses on talent rather than a notion of pure intelligence.
Initially, he says, there was some resistance among the staff to the idea of paying special attention to clever pupils. "For so long we had been concentrating on the less able; some people said surely the able can work by themselves, why should they need extra help?" The first step was to win staff over to the idea that abler pupils were as entitled to challenging work as those with learning difficulties.
Next, the school introduced the Cognitive Ability Test to identify those who are not working at full throttle. Results for every pupil are held on a central database along with SAT scores and medical information. However, the school's policy on able students stresses that liaison with parents, questionnaires about pupils' interests and teachers' intuition are just as useful, if not more, than the CAT tests.
Each department has its own written policy on able pupils. "We felt it was particularly important to include departments like PE in order to avoid too narrow and academic a definition of ability," says Mr Battersby. The maths department, for instance, offers a checklist of 15 characteristics such as "originality and initiative" and "ability to find mathematical shortcuts". The department specifies the types of classroom organisation and teaching atmosphere in which bright pupils are most likely to thrive.
It is impossible to prove whether the bright children are achieving more because of the extra attention - you would need a control group. But this is not a scientific experiment and staff point out that the able students programme has affected the ethos of the whole school. "I've never heard any child being put down by another because he or she is working hard," says Elaine Board of the English department. Teachers emphasise that the programme is not exclusive; any child who shows an interest can join in.
Parents are happy. Neil Maythorne, father of a girl in Year 7, says: "You discover a side of your child you didn't know. At primary school, competition was at a minimum, now she is very competitive, mainly with herself. She sets herself very high standards." Nancy Hammond says her son had been dismissed as an idler and a daydreamer at his primary school. "He's become much more focused now. He wants to be a space scientist," she adds.
Mr Rees relishes the fact that Ivybridge does not lose pupils to local selective independent schools. In fact those schools' staff frequently borrow Ivybridge ideas and send their children there.
He does occasionally get baffling reactions when interviewing staff for jobs. "Sometimes when we explain about the able students programme they say 'oh no, elitism'; and yet they agree with helping children with special needs. It's extraordinary," he says. "There's a persistent strain of anti-intellectualism in this country."