A Glasgow head provoked an outcry by introducing accelerated classes to his inner-city comprehensive. Elizabeth Buie finds out why he thinks it gives a better deal to every pupil
It was a conversation with Gordon, one of his highest achieving pupils, that persuaded Rod O'Donnell to introduce streaming to his school.
St Paul's High in Pollok is in one of Glasgow's most deprived areas. It was the year 2000 and Gordon was about to leave to study science at Strathclyde University.
Mr O'Donnell, who had been headteacher at St Paul's High for a year and had spent that time implementing the inspectors' action plan he had inherited, called Gordon into his room.
"Teach me how to be a better headteacher," he said. "What works and what doesn't work?"
Gordon's response was to be a defining moment for the head.
"He told me his schooling had almost been a complete waste of time, particularly in his first and second years. He had done really well in primary and been a great worker, and when he arrived at St Paul's he was keen to do well here too. But he realised that if he did well in class he became recognised and being recognised in a Glasgow comprehensive maybe wasn't the best policy for his own safety. So he decided on anonymity and stopped achieving. Instead of being top in maths, he deliberately under-performed.
"The really disappointing thing was that the teachers didn't notice it, so they let him under-perform."
Gordon and his mother compared his S2 work with his primary jotters and realised he had been going backwards.
"He lived in a pretty difficult part of this area and didn't change much of his attitude to school in third year. Then one night in fourth year, he was looking out of his window and yet again the police had rolled into the street. He decided: 'I am getting out of this place,' and he decided to work in school."
Mr O'Donnell reflects on what he now calls the Gordon factor, this seminal conversation with an 18-year-old whom the system nearly failed.
"Do you sit and listen and do nothing? How can you sit and let that happen? It was a shocking conversation."
So he tabled a proposal to his five-strong senior management team that they introduce an accelerated class, starting in that year's first year, to work alongside another class which would give greater curricular flexibility for less able pupils. The vote was 3-2 against.
A year later, the senior depute said to Mr O'Donnell: "Not much has changed in a year. Our exam results are still plateauing, looking at S1 and S2. I think you should retable your accelerated class proposal." He did, and this time, the senior depute switched his vote. It was 3-2 in favour.
As a principal teacher of history at St Mungo's Academy in the city in the mid-1970s, just after comprehensive schools were brought in, Mr O'Donnell had witnessed the introduction of an accelerated class in S2. As an assistant head at St Margaret Mary's Secondary in Castlemilk in the late 1980s, his proposal for a fast-tracked class had been shot down in flames, with some principal teachers even threatening to report St Mary Margaret's head to Strathclyde for breach of council policy.
Now, however, in a climate of more devolved school management, he had the green light to experiment.
In August 2001, when just over 120 pupils arrived in S1, the top 60 by ability were selected and put into two streamed classes. The idea was that they would remain together for all subjects. They were selected by their 5-14 results in language and maths . The remaining 60 pupils were divided into three mixed ability classes of around 20. They were to benefit from smaller classes, more teaching resources, and a more tailored curriculum.
"We skewed the resources. The able children got X and the children who needed greater support got X-plus."
This summer, the first cohort of fully streamed pupils received their Standard grade results. They were the highest passes ever recorded at the school: 22 per cent at Credit, 74 per cent at General and 94 per cent at Foundation.
But they also reignited the debate over mixed-ability versus setting versus streaming. St Paul's High, like many schools, had set classes according to ability for maths and English - but the Gordon factor had clearly convinced Mr O'Donnell that setting was not enough.
He could, in theory, have set each subject class according to ability, but, apart from causing major problems on the timetable, he had other reasons for choosing to stream.
"Setting might work in what is considered to be the normal type of comprehensive, a comprehensive with the correct socio-economic mix. What I had to break through was the mentality of under-achievement that the children had. I wanted to create a mentality of achievement. I believed that for hot-housing we should keep them together and that way they would actually achieve better in all subjects.
"It was critical that we didn't create a ghetto group who were undervalued.
But I would challenge anyone to walk into this school and find a child who feels under-valued. The top-ability children understand that they are in a faster class but there is not one who will look down his nose on the others."
Critics of streaming warn that it does not allow children to move up or down, does not cater for the child who has high ability in one subject but not in another, and ill- serves boys who tend to be later developers academically.
Mr O'Donnell counters that, by saying that two or three children have moved up to the accelerated class and one boy was moved out of it because of highly disruptive behaviour (he had, apparently, become involved in a local gang).
Some have challenged this year's exam results, saying they stand out mainly because last year's were poor.
Mr O'Donnell accepts that last year's Standard grade results were disappointing, but many factors contributed to that year's poor performance, he argues. None of which undermine the successes of the streamed groups this year.
Of one thing he is adamant: this year's results are not just down to streaming but to a combination of factors. The quality of teaching, the commitment of staff - even the English department's attempt to create a culture of reading - are important but ultimately unquantifiable.
WHY ST PAUL'S HAS RISEN IN THE RANKS
Liaison with feeder schools There is better recognition of work done by primary colleagues so that S1 is a continuation of the work the pupils have already done.
Cutting exclusions Rod O'Donnell defines St Paul's as "an inclusive school". "When you exclude pupils in the old model - and Glasgow and others are pretty notorious for it - you don't solve problems. The kids come back disliking school more and harder in their anti-school views."
Attendance Up from 84 to 89 per cent in five years. It is partly because pupils follow more appropriate courses, the head says.
A core curriculum This includes only four subjects: English, maths, administration (an excellent business education department was producing outstanding results) and science.
Tight monitoring Departments must justify poor results. The head meets principal teachers every six weeks to review them. Senior management undertake regular classroom observation.
Training The school organises high-quality continuing professional development, targeting learning and teaching methods.
Classroom assistants St Paul's High has six - unusual in a secondary school - and they have had a positive impact.
Registration The 15-minutes daily period has been abolished (attendance is monitored electronically). Instead, teachers mentor pupils twice a week, looking at their attendance, homework and so on.
No parents' nights St Paul's High now has parents' days. The result is that 88 per cent turn up compared with 40 per cent previously. The school has an open-door policy for parents and every department is expected to issue "sharing good news" praise slips as appropriate.
Staged change The head alters one key policy every year; last year it was homework, now called "learning beyond the classroom". Every teacher is expected to issue homework but is challenged to make it more interesting, and not always written.
Pastoral care Covers guidance and support for learning.
Working hours There is a collegiate attitude to the 35-hour week. After the post-McCrone agreement, the head said to staff: "I trust you. As far as I can see you work very hard - just keep doing it."
Discipline A new policy, Steps to Success, is based on the premise that not every child will behave perfectly. When they transgress, "we can take certain steps to lead them back to success". Class discipline is reviewed every eight weeks.
Popularity The school roll up from 500 to just under 700 in five years. St Paul's has three associated primaries but now receives placing requests from 18 primaries and there is a waiting list for S1.
Building The new pound;8 million school has had an impact on pupils'
Morning prayer Pupils participate every day and are trusted to walk to church a mile away to celebrate Mass on special days.