How it pepped up the pupils who accepted the challenge

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Second year pupils at Boclair Academy in Bearsden achieved work that was "Standard grade going into Higher" in a pilot project to stretch the brightest pupils.

The headteacher, Jim Aitchison, chaired the committee which produced East Dunbartonshire's report, Enabling Able Pupils, and oversaw the pilot in his own school. Using HMI guidelines which define able youngsters as those who perform well in 10 subjects, the school identified 24 out of 210 pupils as comfortably capable of the extra work. A letter went home outlining the "S2 Challenge" to parents and child.

Some parents felt the work would be too much on top of everything else their child was doing. Others were exasperated when their children vetoed the project as uncool. Eighteen youngsters accepted the challenge which involved open-ended cross-curricular study over four months of a single topic, either selected from a list of nine or suggested by themselves and negotiated with teachers.

The solar system was the most popular topic. Pupils were asked to research a question such as: "The composer Holst is famous for his Planets Suite. How does his music reflect what ancient civilisations believed about the planets? Suggestions: Listen to the music. Find out where the names of each movement come from. Research the characteristics of the gods the planets are named after. Give your opinion on how well the music matches the personality of the god it is named after."

Another option was to research ancient religious beliefs centred on the planets. Pupils were invited to use CD-Roms and books to learn about the Druids and Stonehenge, the Greeks, Romans and astrology. A questionnaire on astrology to fellow pupils was a natural progression.

A less popular topic centred on the environment and local government. Children were asked to collect hard evidence of levels and types of pollution in the area, draw a pollution map, find out about authority controls on pollution and design a poster raising awareness. "Who's Who?" offered children the chance to investigate any famous historical figure using written material, works of art and film. They were asked to assess whether the information from different sources tallied.

On completion work was displayed and pupils were awarded certificates. Six were awarded a distinction in the final assessment, only two failed to complete the challenge and most said in an evaluation sheet that they found at least parts of the project worthwhile. Jim Aitchison says the youngsters are challenged by the normal curriculum, but this was "icing on the cake".

For future challenges, he will take on board the reluctance of some pupils to do the project in their own time, a desire for a shorter timescale and a deadline. He would also root subjects in the syllabus, to make use of the flexible time in the curriculum.

It was difficult for staff to provide a lot of time in the pilot, so learning support teacher Anne Cadden would see them in intervals and lunchtimes to make suggestions and encourage links across the curriculum to synthesise the information.

Her principal teacher, Fiona Barr, says: "Some of the work done by these second years was Standard grade going into Higher and it really helped them see the connections between subjects." Parents were also positive in their assessment of the challenge.

Dorothy Lowe, whose son Euan chose his own topic on the clarinet - history, physics of sound, different styles of music, says: "Euan certainly found it very stimulating that it was open-ended with no set answer.

"He really enjoyed it and it led him into all sorts of areas. People were very kind to him. He was invited to see a collection of ancient instruments at Edinburgh University and at Glasgow.

"The project generated a lot of discussion. It gave him the opportunity to be creative and follow his own interests and discover areas of overlap. The school provided support and parameters but within that he had quite a lot of control and autonomy. It gave him motivation and I think there will be a long-term effect."

Anne Craig, whose daughter Jenny-Anne pursued the topic on planets, says: "It was a struggle to find the time, even though we have quite a lot of books in the house anyway. There was never any feeling that she was frustrated or held back by the curriculum, but this extra work was a worthwhile thing to do." Jenny-Anne herself says: "It was quite hard and challenging. I didn't find all parts of it enjoyable but I did learn some things."

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