Bright sixth-formers getting distinctions in degree-level maths have caught the eye of Labour politicians. Gerald Haigh reports. More than 30 years ago, Labour's then education minister, Tony Crosland, came to office determined to abolish grammar schools. Ever since then, the Labour Party has had to tackle the accusation that its education policies have been anti-elitist in the worst sense - that they involve a "levelling down", to the detriment of bright children. Today, New Labour's stated intention to phase out the Assisted Places Scheme is, in the minds of some critics, confirmation that the ghost of Crosland is still abroad.
Shadow education secretary David Blunkett's latest reassurances about the future of grammar schools are clearly designed to deflect such criticism. And lending substance to Labour's promises is the work of David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, on the education of able children.
One of David Jamieson's themes is the need for open-ended opportunities, allowing children to go as far as their abilities and enthusiasm will take them. He says Labour wants to see, for example, "the opportunity for pupils to carry forward credits from school into higher education - perhaps to shorten the first degree".
It was this line of thinking that took him last year to Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay, north Tyneside, to see a project which brings able senior pupils into contact with the content and methods of a university course. Ten sixth-formers at the school had embarked on an Open University maths course. It was a bold and interesting step, fully in line with, and to some extent inspired by, Sir Ron Dearing's Review of 16-19 Qualifications, published last summer, which suggested able young people might study OU modules.
The Monkseaton project would, it was thought, bring many advantages for the young people involved. The course, Open Mathematics, aimed to relate maths to the real world, and to broaden students' academic knowledge and qualifications (only three of the 10 were studying A-level maths). It also aimed to give them the ability to cope with self-motivated undergraduate study.
When I met the Monkseaton 10 in 1995, I was impressed enough to write of their chances of success that "I would walk into a betting shop and put money on them" (The TES, December 1, 1995). Now, I wish I had, because the results of the project, released last month, show that not only did all the students pass, but five did so with distinction - a far higher proportion than the national average.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the magnitude of this achievement. The course is, in effect, one-quarter of a first-year degree. The OU considers that it demands eight hours work a week.
Although the course requires no previous advanced mathematical knowledge, it rapidly escalates in difficulty - and each of the students was already committed to studying for at least three A-levels.
For their maths course, the sixth-formers operated as standard OU students - studying and working on assignments at home, using printed and video material sent by the OU. There were some OU tutorials, which they attended along with adult students. The school was not involved in their teaching, although their sixth-form tutor, Margaret Chaytor, was a valuable supporter - particularly as she did the course alongside her students.
Such projects offer schools many attractions. The administrative burden is small because the students "belong" to the university. But there is no doubt that able students are challenged in the way specialists believe is best - by being extended sideways into new areas rather than pushed on more quickly down the same path. Other schools, without doubt, will be interested. And because the course is university-based, students can go as far as their ability and interest will take them - in line with David Jamieson's wish for something "open ended".
However, the workload and the ability of the students to cope are issues that need to be taken seriously by heads and teachers. Student Sally Gay says: "We had to make sure we left slots for the work - eight hours a week in all. It had to fit in with A-levels, and there were sacrifices to make." Another student, Holly Quinton, recalls hours closeted with her books. She says: "My bedroom became my place of residence." Holly, who took A-levels in art, history and French, decided to do the course because her ability at maths was not up to the standard of the rest of her work - at GCSE, her C for maths stood out among a string of A grades.
This explains the secret of these students' success - that it was attitude rather than exceptional ability that kept them going when, for example, difficult OU assignments were due in the same week as A-level end-of-module exams. All the students involved recall a particularly difficult week last June, when several challenges arrived simultaneously. According to one of them, Paul Grant, "it was a nightmare".
He describes one of the OU assignments from that time. "It was based on music. You had to use the intervals in an equally tempered scale of 12 notes and work out a formula for where the frets would go on a guitar."
Because two of his four A-levels are music and maths, Paul found himself cast as chief consultant for this task. In fact, as time went on, several students found that their own A-level studies provided illumination for the broadly-based OU course. Art students were intrigued by a unit on perspective. And "one whole unit was about maps", explains Paul. "So the geographers found that easy."
The students evidently gained strength from being together in the same school. "We were able to meet once a week," explains Margaret Chaytor. "And we were able to get a group identity."
Had there been any question of any member dropping out of the course? "Nobody ever told me they couldn't cope. Actually there were times when it might have been me."
Margaret Chaytor says her decision to do the course herself has been an important ingredient in the school's handling of the project. "It needs managing by someone, and I think the person has to do the course. There was an advantage, too, in my not being a maths teacher."
She was able to set up a genuine and close link with the student's problems. "I could say, 'Look, I'm under pressure too - I've got 100 books waiting at home to be marked, and a family to look after'."
The support provided by her family - the concern of her teenage children as they looked in on her at her studies, for example - made her conscious of the importance for students of parental back-up. There was a parents' meeting at the beginning, and Margaret Chaytor responded to questions and concerns throughout. "Some of the parents were worried about the amount of work. At the end I wrote to all of them and thanked them," she says.
In the end, though, what has been gained? The students have learned a lot about self-motivation, unsupervised study and personal organisation - all qualities which will stand them in good stead in higher education. But in terms of a direct pay-off for easier entrance to higher education the jury is still out.
None of the students interviewed has been turned down for anything. But few really believed the offers they received from universities had been radically affected by the evidence that they were already studying at undergraduate level.
Monkseaton's head, Dr Paul Kelley, says it is too early to make a judgment on the scheme. "Universities didn't have the OU results when they dealt with applications - and they've never had to deal with anything like this before, " he says.
He has written to universities in support of his students. It would be a pity if higher education institutions were slow to see the value of these students' accomplishments. "What more do they want," says Margaret Chaytor, "than someone who has already done a quarter of an academic year, with distinction?"
Politicians, meanwhile, are certainly looking at what Monkseaton has done. Senior Labour figures, including shadow leader of the house Ann Taylor, have visited the school, and it is not difficult to conclude that they may well see the OU project as an example of what might be done to enhance performance among able senior pupils.
David Jamieson - who took an OU qualification himself some years ago - echoes this view. He says: "I would have thought admissions tutors would find youngsters with this kind of record extremely attractive."
The MP has kept in touch with the project, and a week or two ago kept a promise to show the students round the House of Commons. He was clearly delighted by their success, and came away genuinely excited by their achievement and by the way that Monkseaton's work shows how education for bright sixth-formers might develop. "This is the sort of open-ended learning that should be available. It's an exciting and challenging way forward, " he says.
The OU project is just one of several interesting ideas in action at Monkseaton which, apart from showing excellent "value added" exam results, has pupils video-conferencing with other European schools (in the Students Across Europe Language Network - SAELN) and has recently been given Language College status. A Louvre-style glass pyramid is going up in the central quadrangle, to house a state-of-the art study centre. Revision packages for core subjects on computer disk are available for students to take home. Pupils on long-term sick leave are provided with computers linked to school.
Behind all this is Dr Paul Kelley, whose deceptively laid-back manner is enhanced by his American accent. A college drop-out who later took an OU degree in Britain, he has a clear vision of taking pupils forward in ways that look beyond the confines of the conventional classroom - "learning at home with IT, learning before school, after school, sometimes in lessons, sometimes in video-conferencing, sometimes through institutions like the OU. I've been told I'm re-engineering school," he says.
The quest, he maintains, is to give students "a richer educational experience".
The OU project is on course for a further year - the next group of 10 is about to start work. But at OU headquarters, there remains understandable uncertainty about how far this can go beyond the level of the experimental. Until now, the OU's central mission has been directed at adults - its statutory lower age limit, exclusively waived for the Monkseaton project - is 18. To what extent, therefore, can the institution become involved in educating under-18s who are still at school? On this question, too, the jury is still out. If David Jamieson's work is any indicator, though, a Labour government might have something to say about it.