The consensus around the table is that they were expecting it to be hard. Studying Shakespeare made it seem daunting to Nathan; taking the course a year ahead of schedule was enough to give Shane doubts. But there are nods of agreement when Elli says it was easier than she anticipated.
They can look back on completing the first year of their GCSE English course with some satisfaction. At the mention of National Challenge, however, the looks turn to puzzlement. Yet these half dozen Year 9 pupils are their school's outliers, leading the charge to shed its tag as a National Challenge school.
Canterbury High was one of 638 schools named in the National Challenge programme last summer. Selected on the basis of GCSE results - where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieved five A*-C grades, including English and maths - the schools faced a stark challenge: hit the 30 per cent bar or risk closure.
They were told they would get pound;400 million over the next three years to help them reach the target, plus help from specialist advisers. So 12 months into the scheme, has the National Challenge made any difference?
Canterbury High fell just under the threshold, with 27 per cent of pupils getting five A*-Cs including English and maths, although this increased to 30 last summer. But in an area that operates selection at 11, it could also boast the country's sixth highest contextual value added (CVA) score, a measure of the progress its pupils make. Last year it was graded "outstanding" by Ofsted.
"I'm not angry about it any more, but we felt we were doing our best for these children and we were being smacked in the face," says headteacher Philip Karnavas.
He does concede, however, that there have been benefits. He says they have been fortunate in having Jenny Thomas, a former Kent schools adviser, to offer support, and the additional funds have paid for tutors in maths and English. But a key tactic in its effort to raise GCSE grades has been multiple exam entries and a significant proportion of the pound;48,000 the school got last year, and the pound;42,000 it will receive this year, is allocated for exam fees.
"There will always be a tranche of pupils who will get a C or a D on any given day," Mr Karnavas says. "If you enter the same cohort twice you will get more passes. If you enter them three times you will get more passes still. Without doing anything different you will get more passes at grade C."
In maths, this means pupils can take their GCSE at the end of Year 10, at Christmas in Year 11 and at the end of Year 11. If they get a C or above at the first attempt they can take it again to improve their grade, or they can take AS maths, GCSE statistics, or spend more time on English. Taking GCSE English in a year is less practical because of the coursework involved, but this is where Nathan, Shane and Elli come in. They are members of a 24-strong pilot group of pupils who have started their GCSE in Year 9, meaning they can still take it over two years, but with the option of retaking during Year 11 to improve their grade if necessary. If the experiment proves successful it could be extended across the year group. So far the signs are good, with one A*, six As and 14 Bs for the first-year coursework.
"I thought doing it a year early would be difficult, but I've found it a lot easier than I thought," says Shane, 14. "If I do well in the test in Year 10 it will take the pressure off Year 11."
Elli, 13, enjoys the chance to work more independently in a GCSE group, but appreciates the extra help available in a smaller class. Lauren, 14, says starting a GCSE course gives pupils more incentive to study and not mess about in Year 9, a sentiment shared by Nathan, also 14, who got an A* for his coursework. "We understand the seriousness of it," he says.
It may be playing the system, but Mr Karnavas says the use of multiple exam entries is simply a product of a scheme where only crude numbers count. "In any target-driven system people will do anything to meet the target," he says. "But there is a huge difference between achieving the target and improving education."
Canterbury High may have reached its 30 per cent target last summer, two months after being included in National Challenge, but Mr Karnavas is aware that the line between hitting and missing is very fine: three children's results will be enough to tip the school one way or the other this summer.
Additional tutors give the school the capacity to teach in smaller groups, but all this could be lost when the scheme ends and the money runs out in 2011. "We could lose an awful lot," says Sue Crawley, assistant head with responsibility for National Challenge.
Mr Karnavas likens the school's efforts to "total war" as it mobilises resources in pursuit of its target. Basketball coaching has been combined with maths, and in October, 34 children on the CD and DE borderlines will go on a residential with a maths and English focus. The two subjects are timetabled together, so pupils who get their C in one but are not expected to improve their grade can go into extra lessons for the other. "Otherwise they could be dragged out of `less important' lessons, that may not be less important to them," says Mr Karnavas.
But while there may have been benefits from National Challenge, he is no more reconciled to the concept than he was 12 months ago. He says such a crude system, which ignores a school's intake, is intrinsically unfair, particularly in an area such as Kent, which operates a system based on selection, or rejection, in Mr Karnavas's words.
According to data from the Fisher Family Trust, which measures how children should achieve given their background, none of Canterbury High's cohorts should reach the 30 per cent target until 2011. "The question is not how well a school is doing, it is how well it is doing, considering," he says.
Wordsley School near Stourbridge in the West Midlands found out it was included in the National Challenge in the same week that Mike Lambert, its headteacher, was asked by the Government to share his expertise on working in deprived areas. He likens the experience of being "named and shamed" as being "hung out to dry as a failing school".
When Mr Lambert arrived in 2001, Wordsley had more spare places than any other school in Dudley, but for the past four years it has been oversubscribed and its CVA is in the top 10 per cent in the country. The proportion of pupils gaining the requisite five GCSEs including maths and English has risen from 11 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent last year, but still not enough to escape the National Challenge net.
The bulk of the pound;27,000 received through the scheme last year was spent on consultants, but Mr Lambert has been frustrated by the contribution from the promised special advisers. "By the time we had any visits it was January, and our plans were already in place," he says.
"We bypassed National Challenge to some extent," adds Helen Griffiths, assistant head. "We got the funding and used it to sort out our own consultancy support."
A variety of programmes were drawn up for pupils who needed extra help in English and maths. These included extra lessons, small group teaching, one-on-one sessions and exam booster classes. Some pupils were also put in adult literacy and numeracy classes, while others were taken out of lessons for extra English or maths. "We're seeing what is appropriate for each child," says Mrs Griffiths.
Although it has focused on monitoring the progress of the 80 pupils seen as key to meeting the National Challenge target, the school has involved all its 120 Year 11 pupils. "Just because we have targeted a group, it doesn't mean everyone shouldn't have the same support," she says. "It is just good practice."
Wordsley has also gone down the path of early exam entries, at least in maths. All Year 11 pupils took their GCSE in November and again this summer, apart from one who got an A* first time around. "It is expensive but it is raising the aspirations of the children," she says. "Whether we will do the same next year is up for review."
Unlike Canterbury High, Wordsley has not done the same in English, believing pupils are unlikely to do themselves justice by taking the exam early. But they have revamped their schemes of work for key stages 3 and 4.
The school has also appointed additional staff, but many of these measures pre-dated National Challenge. The extra cash has helped, but the school is expected to come out of National Challenge this year and Mr Lambert has been told to expect just pound;12,000. He had planned to spend an additional pound;66,000. The shortfall will have to be found from within the school's budget. The fact that the Government is unable to plan as far in advance as it expects schools to plan is a bone of contention, he says.
Despite the extra cash, he doubts that the scheme has made much difference. He believes it would have been more effective to channel the money through the existing system rather than creating a new one. But he does acknowledge the motivation behind it.
"The principle is about empowering young people, and if we want to give our young people a choice, they have to have English and maths," he says. "We have treated National Challenge with the contempt it deserves, but we haven't let it get us down."
This strikes a chord with Mo Laycock, headteacher at Firth Park Community Arts College in Sheffield. When her school was named in National Challenge, she says her first reaction was anger. The school got 26 per cent of pupils to five A*-Cs including maths and English last year, up from the 12 per cent when Mrs Laycock arrived in 1995, and had the highest CVA in Sheffield.
But as time has gone on she says she now feels more positive about the scheme, particularly the "outstanding" support given by the school's National Challenge adviser. "We have learnt a lot this year, and that has been because of that focus on five A*-Cs including maths and English," she says.
The additional funding - pound;75,000 in the first year - has enabled the school to appoint extra staff, reduce class sizes and offer targeted help for pupils, such as classes during holidays.
"It means team-teaching can take place, and has enabled more experienced practitioners to link with recently qualified teachers," says Chris Keen, deputy head. "We have used it for greater personalised learning."
As an English teacher, Anna Sierney probably feels the pressure more than most at the school. She says there is an emphasis on identifying "National Challenge pupils", those capable but not certain of getting their five A*- Cs, as early as possible, and then providing tailored support, including individual tutoring.
Projects aimed at encouraging pupils in English and maths include allowing them to choose which texts to study in the former, and working with a furniture maker who carves shapes designed by the children in the latter.
"We're continuously looking for ways to engage the pupils," says Natalie Rowson, head of English. "We know if they don't get maths and English then their chances when they leave here are diminished."
But, just as at Wordsley, if the school is successful at meeting its targets it will be punished by having its funding reduced. Firth Park intends to keep the additional staff, but this will put more pressure on the school budget, says Louise Perry, associate deputy head.
"If we hadn't had the additional funding, we would not have been able to move as fast as we have done," she says. She adds that although the school's perception of National Challenge has gone from 80 per cent threat and 20 per cent opportunity to the other way around, it has still been a source of considerable stress.
Shane Lucas, a history teacher who has been at the school for 30 years, is more sceptical of the impact of National Challenge. "Ninety per cent of it we were already doing, and the bits we weren't doing were the bits we couldn't afford," he says. "The problem is, when they pull the funding away we will be back to square one."
Like Canterbury High and Wordsley, Firth Park is also making use of early exam entry, although at the moment it is in the form of a small-scale pilot. Instead, it has devoted considerable effort - and National Challenge cash - to working with vulnerable pupils.
Among the new staff are two learning mentors, given the job of working with 18 Year 11 pupils whose attendance is poor. "We hadn't the capacity to support those pupils before," says Ms Perry.
Year group tutors help to identify pupils who are often on the CD borderline. They may get a morning phone call to wake them up, a text reminding them to come to school, or, in the case of one boy, be picked up and driven to school.
As at Canterbury High, few of the children on the receiving end of all this National Challenge effort have heard of the scheme. But they are still indignant at their school being classed as a "failure".
"I don't think people really take into account what sort of area we're in," says Dan, 13. "You wouldn't expect this school to be like other ones in Sheffield." William, 15, adds: "If you look at the grades people get, they're lower than the national average, but the amount of improvement people show is higher than the national average."
While Mrs Laycock has become reconciled to National Challenge, this emphasis on helping vulnerable pupils simply underlines her original objections, that it was unfair to schools in challenging circumstances. "It was not the case that we needed to improve teaching and learning," she says. "It was some of the complexities of being an inner-city school that we needed help with."
While the consensus view is that the funding and - to different extents - the advice that comes with National Challenge has been helpful, resentment over the way the scheme was introduced still lingers. Of course, no head is going to be pleased at their school being singled out in this way, but when they are singled out on the basis of an arbitrary figure and without regard to whether they are underachieving, it is harder to stomach.
National Challenge has also had some unintended, although all too predictable consequences, providing an incentive for schools to neglect subjects other than English and maths, and to focus exclusively on pupils on the CD borderline.
"At the sharp end of policy are the individual children," says Mr Karnavas at Canterbury High. "The worst thing that can happen is that success is defined as maths and English plus another three. I would like our children to believe themselves successful because they have enjoyed and achieved."
Most teachers would agree that a child's life chances are improved by having maths and English at GCSE. But to elevate this into the be-all and end-all of education risks punishing some good schools while letting others off the hook.
What they did
Canterbury High School
- Multiple exam entries to give pupils more chances to get their C grade;
- Hired additional tutors to enable more small-group teaching in English and maths;
- Given a maths element to sports coaching sessions;
- GCSE results this year: 36 per cent received five A* to C grades including English and maths.
- Multiple exam entries to give pupils more chances to get their C grade;
- Tailored approach to offer extra help, including one-to-one lessons and attending adult literacy and numeracy classes;
- Revamped schemes of work to focus on skills;
- GCSE results this year: 37 per cent received five A* to C grades including English and maths.
Firth Park Community Arts College
- Appointed additional staff to run smaller classes and team-teaching;
- Appointed learning mentors to raise attendance among vulnerable pupils;
- Given pupils the choice of which texts they will study in English;
- GCSE results this year: 24 per cent received five A* to C grades including English and maths.