Reva Klein visits a school praised by Tony Blair for following a fast track approach. When David Blunkett went to visit Marches School in Oswestry, Shropshire, almost a year ago, he met two boys who had received GCSE A stars in maths and were preparing for their A-levels. Nothing surprising in that. The school has a respectable if not extraordinary 47 per cent of pupils getting five or more A-C GCSEs, a quarter gaining nine or more. One of the school's 58 statemented pupils received a grade C in art last year.
But these two lads are different. Ben Sharman and David Vrabel were 14 when they did their GCSEs, two years ahead of their classmates. And today, Ben is taking an Open University science course alongside eight other GCSEs. So when Labour leader Tony Blair announced his proposals for accelerated learning, where more able pupils are fast tracked to enable them to learn at their own pace, one of the two schools named as following this progressive approach was, inevitably, Marches.
But headmaster Alan Cooper takes pains to point out that the school is nothing out of the ordinary. "We just have a few children doing a few enhanced things across the curriculum," he says. That is as maybe, but the fact is that there aren't many other schools offering the "few enhanced things" that Marches does. Nor do they have the mechanisms to identify those children who would benefit from them.
But, in Mr Cooper's words: "If a child is able in any area, we should foster and encourage that ability, given all the organisational constraints of a large comprehensive."
That approach is put into practice by an assessment system that closely monitors each child's progress in relation to their potential. Internal assessments are carried out each half term and formal reports to parents are sent out twice yearly. Assessments record each child's "Ten Plus" scores on literacy and numeracy tests that Shropshire carries out in the child's last year of primary. These results are set against the average for other children in the county. Next to these are the child's attainment scores as well as effort levels. This arrangement shows at a glance how children are performing and whether intervention is necessary.
While this system demands time and work, Mr Cooper and his team believe it is worth it. "By these scores, we can identify children who are doing exceptionally well and can also identify children who are not achieving what they're capable of. One of the great weaknesses of the comprehensive system in the Sixties and Seventies was that it didn't look at children as individuals. But through careful assessments, backed by pastoral and social systems, we're able to to reverse this approach."
This was how Ben and David were identified as candidates for fast-tracking. From Year 8, which is when setting begins at the school, they were in the highest maths set. When their maths teacher saw that their attainment was as high as it was, she suggested that they enter for GCSEs, but only on the proviso that they achieved As. They agreed and, in the event, did one better. But rather than be put into a next year group, which is Tony Blair's idea of accelerated learning, they stayed in their set and received extra, more advanced tuition one hour a week after school. Now, they are doing the same thing for their A-levels, but this time with another teacher whose maths is more advanced.
For Ben, being allowed the chance to go faster in maths has been a life-saver. "It was the right thing at the right time. I was getting bored and fed up in my class. Before the GCSE idea was put forward, the teacher was just giving me more of the same work to do to occupy me." While some critics have suggested negative social repercussions for the child who is singled out as clever, these boys haven't experienced it. Ben doesn't particularly mind it when "some friends still ask 'what're you doing with those great big books?' I just lob them at their desks, they have a look for ten seconds and then say 'oh yeah.'" Alan Cooper thinks that, if anything, the boys have "gained street-cred doing their exams early. It's funny seeing them walking around the library helping the others with their maths, like some kind of consultants." But he admits that fast-tracking is not appropriate for everyone. "Ben and David haven't had stick from other kids because they're so different anyway, being very studious. But those children who make good progress at school while also being part of the youth culture would find it more difficult."
Youth culture is definitely a part of the Marches scene. This is not a school of swots. The 1,140 children who attend the largely purpose-built school, amalgamated from two smaller comprehensives in 1988, are largely from working-class backgrounds. Its massive playing fields abut those of Oswestry independent school, next door. Achievement in sport is as proudly celebrated as academic success. For two years running, Marches has won the county Under-16 soccer cup. With particular glee, Mr Cooper glories in last year's win over Shrewsbury, Michael Heseltine's alma mater.
Be that as it may, one of the school's governors is Sarah Biffen, wife of the Tory MP for Shropshire North. She has been quoted as saying that what works on the Welsh borders "could fall flat on its face in Tower Hamlets". The achievements of Marches "won't export". Where Mrs Biffen gets her certainty for this is unclear.
As far as Marches deputy head Lyndon Sheppard is concerned, "The most important thing is the self-regenerating nature of achievement. When a child knows it's succeeding, when they receive merit certificates at assemblies and quiet words of congratulations for achievement and effort from staff, they want to continue to succeed. There are often a lot of invisible children in comprehensives. If you can make them visible and show that you regard them as individuals in their own right and let them know where they stand in terms of their own achievements, you can change their life." And that must be as true in Tower Hamlets, Birmingham and Liverpool as it is in Oswestry.