I think therefore I am set to succeed

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Martin Whittaker on how the likes of Descartes have helped to transform results at a Yorkshire comprehensive

Name: Burnholme community college, York

School type: 11-16 comprehensive.

Improved results: This year 45 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with 23 per cent in 1998.

Percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals: 17.1 per cent.

Pupils at Burnholme community college have taken GCSEs two years early after being introduced to great philosophical thinkers such as Plato and Descartes in Year 7.

What began as the brainchild of an English teacher to encourage pupils'

critical thinking is now being extended to other year groups following some striking exam results.

Twenty-four pupils took GCSE religious studies and sociology in Year 9 this summer, yielding a crop of A* and A grades. Some of the group, now in Year 10, have started an A-level philosophy course, which they will take alongside their other GCSEs.

But these children are not the most able pupils at a selective school.

Burnholme is a state comprehensive with mixed-ability pupils, but skewed towards the lower end of the ability range, on a disadvantaged council estate on the outskirts of York.

"My belief is that philosophy enables the children to become better learners," says headteacher Tony Gavin. "It raises aspirations and gives the children hope and confidence, and that percolates throughout the school."

Burnholme community college is a small 11-16 school with 491 pupils. In its last inspection by the Office for Standards in Education four years ago it was declared a good and improving school that was well-led and well-managed.

More than 50 per cent of its children are on the school's register of pupils with special educational needs, and 6.2 per cent are statemented - way above the national average. More than 17 per cent of its pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Meanwhile, Burnholme has seen a steady improvement in its GCSE results.

This year 45 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with 23 per cent in 1998. The school recently succeeded in a bid to become a specialist business and enterprise college.

Mr Gavin says he has seen big changes in pupils' aspirations and teachers'

expectations of the children's abilities since he arrived as a deputy seven years ago. He holds up the work of English teacher Sue Williamson, the school's co-ordinator for the gifted and talented, as a prime example. Five years ago, she did an experiment with a group of disaffected pupils who were at risk of permanent exclusion.

Taking the group once a week, she gave them access to GCSE materials, believing that challenging them more would improve their behaviour.

"It didn't in the least," she admits. "But it created some really interesting work - the more I gave them, the more they could do. What they produced was so good. I was giving Year 8 pupils what you would normally give to Years 10 and 11 - they would do everything I gave them."

She then persuaded the school to take this a stage further. In 2000, Ms Williamson set up an extension scheme in which two dozen Year 7 pupils were given a critical-thinking course for an hour a week.

Although those chosen were the top 20 per cent of their year, the group still represented a mixed range of abilities. Selected by baseline data, typically their key stage 2 Sats English levels were 4b, 4a or 5c with one or two pupils at 5b.

The course introduced pupils to great philosophers including Plato, Descartes, Sartre and Wittgenstein, but was also illustrated with references to popular culture - for example, using that other great philosopher Homer Simpson to discuss ethics.

When the group was in Year 8 the scheme was stepped up and pupils began GCSE courses in sociology and religious studies, courses designed for independent self-study.

The two GCSEs were carefully chosen as they both encourage pupils to analyse and think critically, looking at arguments for differing perspectives.

Pupils were given a study period each week in which they could work in groups on their extension material. Most of the GCSE work was covered in Year 9 when they were given a timetabled hour a week.

Ms Williamson admits that getting the pupils to take these GCSEs as early as Year 9 was a huge risk. "Stakes were high - but they all believed they could do it," she says.

Their faith proved to be well-founded. Eighteen pupils gained at least one grade C each, and there were three A*s and four A grades. One girl gained an A-grade in sociology and an A* in religious studies.

Most were just 14 when they took their exams and had only just completed KS3 Sats.

The school has now started offering critical-thinking extension work to other year groups and has launched a new GCSE in expressive arts, and other departments have begun to consider offering GCSEs early.

Ms Williamson says her pupils have become noticeably more vociferous, more willing and able to talk and write about deeper issues, to analyse and to write and speak more fluently.

She says the extension work - with its independent learning and the rigour of more challenging homework - has given the pupils the skills that many employers and universities claim young people lack.

"As an English teacher, I find they are a lot more analytical, approaching a piece of text from different perspectives," she says. "What's the meaning of this? Is there more than one answer?

"And they have become so much more articulate, very good at expressing themselves in a formal situation - and they are really good at picking up what they see as injustice."

But the most significant result of all, she believes, is the boost it has given to the motivation and self-esteem of pupils, most of whom come from working-class homes.

"What's happened is that these pupils have ended up with the academic part of their identities being protected. No matter what else happens in their lives, that's there now. That can be the thing that launches them. It's the beginning of self-esteem."

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