Positive discrimination

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Susannah Kirkman shows how bringing talented pupils together can boost their confidence

How do schools provide for their most able pupils? The new Office for Standards in Education framework, which takes effect this month, shows that this is one area which inspectors will be considering carefully. Schools will have to show that their teaching is "inclusive" and providing for diverse needs, and that they offer chances for "enrichment", in the classroom and through extra-curricular activities.

Six small primary schools in rural Dorset are bringing their able Year 4 pupils together for a lively creative writing project. Riddles, discussion of literary genres, "fishing" for readers and suspension of disbelief are all included in a shared day led by writer Colin Macfarlane.

The nine-year-olds are fizzing with ideas and respond enthusiastically. By the end of the day, the 24 children have written the first chapter of their story, which features a frustrated genetics professor who becomes a train driver and creates a monster.

"If you bring these children together, they will spark each other off," says Lisa Crew, headteacher of Salway Ash School, near Bridport, which hosts the day. She does not believe specialist provision for able children is elitist; she likes to celebrate achievement of all kinds. "We try to find what every child is good at and we would be doing them a gross injustice if we didn't extend their skills."

While a few pupils may suffer from rural isolation, living on remote farms where they have limited chances to interact with other children, they also enjoy the benefits of small country schools where teachers know their pupils well and can quickly recognise their potential. Pippa Munro, a junior teacher from Parrett and Axe School in Bridport, thinks a special day helps to boost the confidence of able pupils because they have the security of working with a group of like-minded children.

"They know their ideas will be accepted," she explains. "Too often able pupils are insulted by their classmates and called swots and boffs. By the time they get to secondary school, they may just try and hide."

Another advantage of a focused day is that there is plenty of time for stimulus and input, unlike the short segments of the literacy hour, which able children can find frustrating.

Colin Macfarlane, who has been working with able pupils for 12 years, says that the literacy hour doesn't allow bright pupils to go into enough depth and is generally aimed at just below the middle of the class. Bright pupils also need to feel that their work has a purpose and an outcome. Those with keen analytical skills quickly suss out and reject anything which is phoney or pointless. Although they produced only the plot and the first chapter during their day together, the Dorset pupils will finish their story via email and video conferences.

The day also doubles as training for teachers, and those taking part were looking forward to trying Colin Macfarlane's ideas out in their own schools. The format is simple but effective. Firstly, he engages pupil's brains with a riddle session which even the teachers find taxing. Riddling sharpens children's wits and introduces language forms such as puns, metaphor and personification. It also exploits humour, which able pupils particularly appreciate. One of the early signs of giftedness in young children is considered to be a keen sense of humour or irony.

Then comes a brainstorming session. Colin Macfarlane explains that the writer's task is to hook the reader though suspense and originality; cliches are boring and predictable. Pupils then discuss different fictional genres and decide to write a scary story with adventure and humour. Their ideas for the setting, main characters and plot are all put to a vote, so that each pupil is involved.

Their story begins with a train hurtling though the night, driven by the geneticist, who has become a train driver after failing to win a top university job. He loses control and there is a dramatic crash, which kills his best friends who were riding in the cab with him. To escape his loneliness, the geneticist decides to create a monster.

By the end of the afternoon, the children are so excited and involved that they are reluctant to leave. Part of Colin Macfarlane's power as a teacher comes from his passionate belief that able pupils matter. He says: "I feel painfully strongly that able children are the future of society. They are going to be the innovators and they deserve extra time and resources, just like the least able."

To contact Colin Macfarlane email: tellingt@aol.com

web address: http: colinmacfarlane.com


* Give activities a purpose or outcome which builds children's confidence.

For example, publish the work in a group newspaper or school anthology, submit it to a local newspaper or poetry magazine or enter it in a competition. Read it out in assembly or set up a writers' club.

* Keep all the brainstorming sheets, drafts and final neat copy of a powerful and well-edited piece of writing, where the pupil has had plenty of one-to-one help. Display all this on the wall with the pupil's own explanations and comments. This helps the able writer to think about the underlying processes and can also have a positive effect on other pupils.

* Base projects on real settings; brainstorm scary stories in scary places, try journalism based on life-like scenarios or use atmospheric outdoor settings to brainstorm poetry, diaries or short stories.


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