Set in a down-to-earth Cumbrian town, Dowdales is a comprehensive that uses mixed-ability teaching to make sure all its children, including the very able, can develop their full potential, reports Susannah Kirkman
Elizabeth is only 11 but has the language skills of an 18-year-old. She is writing a novel about the lives of Victorian women on a remote island near her home in Cumbria. Although she was bored and unhappy at her primary school, her experience at Dowdales, an 11-to-16 comprehensive in Dalton, near Barrow-in-Furness, has been totally different.
"It's much better here because they will give you more advanced work in the subjects where you need it. They are prepared to do things differently. If you tell them you're not happy about something, they change it," she says.
At Dowdales, staff bend over backwards to meet the needs of all pupils, not just the very able. It's a whole-school policy that has evolved over the past 12 years and it is the secret of their success. academic results are above the national average and far ahead of similar schools. During a recent Ofsted inspection, all the inspectors said they would be delighted to send their own children there. The National Association for Gifted Children says Dowdales is a model of good practice for the education of able and gifted pupils.
The school takes pride in responding swiftly to pupils' interests, mostly expressed through regular "Student Voice" feedback forms, on which children give their views on school life. So that students can take a wide range of subjects at GCSE, Dowdales runs "twilight" courses in German, dance, drama, French and IT. When one linguist wanted to learn Japanese, the school took on a Japanese teacher. There are "early bird" clubs, starting at 8am, for reluctant readers, and a full-time dyslexia counsellor. A "buddy" scheme smooths the transition for pupils who join after Year 7.
All pupils benefit from a rich mix of extra-curricular activities. Year 8 pupils are working with a theatre company to produce a play for primaries about starting secondary school. Other out-of-school activities include a choice of five instrumental groups, meditation techniques and fishing.
Over the past year, staff have organised 80 trips for pupils, ranging from a football tour of Germany to a cultural weekend in London that included a concert, a musical and Shakespeare at the Barbican. All Year 9 pupils visit Lancaster University for a day to whet their appetites for higher education.
Headteacher Liz Moffatt says: "Meeting the needs of able pupils is not a bolt-on extra. The whole ethos of the school is about seeing every child as an individual. We're saying to staff, 'If you've got children with needs or gifts, tell someone.' " All staff have class lists marked with pupils' cognitive abilities test scores and, if they have special needs, the stage they have reached on the code of practice. Denis Fay, the deputy head in charge of able pupils, says good communication is vital so staff can see where children are coming from. Teachers might easily regard a bright, bored child as sulky or disruptive, for instance. The school has often found that a child labelled as difficult or even violent at a previous school is simply frustrated.
Denis Fay, who has been enlisted by Cumbria as an "able child practitioner" to spread good practice throughout the county, denies that catering for more able pupils is elitist. "It doesn't matter to us whether a child has an IQ of 70 or 160 - we have both kinds of pupil here," he says.
While the school encourages children who are ready to take some GCSE subjects early, and allows very gifted pupils to miss a year, it is no hothouse. Dalton-in-Furness is a gritty, down-to-earth Cumbrian town, badly hit by the slump in shipbuilding at Barrow.
A sign of this school's unusually independent approach is its commitment to mixed-ability teaching. The school believes that setting by ability alienates lower-attaining children, so GCSE courses are taught in mixed-ability groups. "It raises everybody's performance if we don't set," explains Lisa Stephenson, a modern languages teacher who has volunteered to help more able children.
Gifted children will get bored if something is too simple, she says, but, because they are used to mastering ideas rapidly, they tend to give up on any task they can't master immediately. So those who have been identified as able will have their work "compacted". This means the subject teacher will find what they know already and set them a more challenging task carefully suited to their needs. This sounds so much like common sense that it's difficult to understand why all schools aren't doing it, except that it does take some organisation. One bright 13-year-old girl at Dowdales, for instance, is working on her own poetry while the rest of the class does spelling.
As soon as an able child is identified, the school draws up a plan with the pupil and parents to set individual needs and objectives. At a meeting with 11-year-old John and his foster father, it is decided that John, who is very good at languages, should get extension work in German. John also chooses Lisa as his mentor, the teacher he can turn to whenever he's in difficulty. This support is available to any Dowdales pupil, but it has been particularly helpful for able pupils, according to Gill Heels, head of drama and part of the pastoral care team.
"Very bright pupils don't always relate well to teachers, and sometimes need to come out of lessons and talk to someone," she explains.
Another crucial aspect of the school's ethos is that achievements of all kinds are recognised. The walls are crammed with certificates and awards ranging from scientist, historian and writer of the month to artist of the moment, to the Youth Awards Scheme, similar to the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. One noticeboard celebrates the achievements of former pupils, from carnival queens to professional rugby players. On a tour of the school, visitors are just as likely to be introduced to a national go-karting champion as a Grade 7 musician.
Pupils seem highly motivated and keen to succeed. A group of 14-year-old boys on an express German GCSE course are scornful of the view that school work isn't "cool". "It won't be very cool standing in a dole queue either," says one.
According to research by Keele University, pupils are satisfied. Some 93 per cent of Dowdales students say it is a good school, compared with a national average of 78 per cent. And 80 per cent believe they have a positive relationship with the school, way above the national figure of 52 per cent.
Parents, too, are impressed by the commitment of the teachers. "Nothing has been too much trouble for the staff. Any little problem is acted on," says Sarah Fraser, the mother of 14-year-old Kate, who's been bored and frustrated in the past. "Dowdales makes her feel special, but it makes every child feel special."
Despite the school's achievements, Denis Fay is not complacent.
"We never claim to succeed but we do journey. Some people never set out," he says.
At the request of the school, children's names have been changed
QUICK OFF THE MARK
Recognising able pupils
Gifted children often have a good memory and use sophisticated language, particularly in speech. They think deeply about things and may be interested in philosophical concepts from an early age. They grasp new ideas quickly and are bored by repetition. They never stop asking questions and have vivid imaginations. They may also have a highly developed sense of humour. But don't expect immaculate work. Handwriting often fails to keep pace with intellectual development.
Gifted children can also have social problems - they like to take the lead and can appear bossy.
Giftedness can be masked by special needs such as dyslexia or Asperger's syndrome.The Department for Education and Employment will produce guidelines for teaching such children later this year.
How can teachers help?
Flexibility in the classroom is the key to success, says the National Association for Gifted Children, as this allows teachers to respond to individual needs. The NAGC favours "compacting", allowing pupils to skip areas they already understand so they can concentrate on more challenging work. Stimulating extra-curricular activities are good, especially as they can be offered to all children, not just the very able. Celebrating all achievement, rather than picking out a few pupils for commendation, will raise expectations and achievement.
Mentoring helps able children feel valued, but mentors do not have to be teachers; they can be older pupils or someone from outside the school with expertise in an area that interests the pupil.
Staff must be committed to helping able children. "Whole-school policies won't work if you have some teachers who say it's rubbish," warns Jo Counsell, NAGC education consultant.
What support and materials are available?
The NAGC website comes on-line in February: www.nagcbritain.org.uk The National Association for Able Children in Education website www.nace.co.uk has details of publications with classroom ideas and information on subjects such as school policies and social and emotional development. For a free information pack for teachers write to: Nace, PO Box 242, Arnolds Way, Oxford OX2 9FR.
www.nrichmaths.org.uk offers extension materials for able mathematicians.
Teaching the Very Able Child by Bell Wallace, published by NaceDavid Fulton, includes information on whole-school provision, identification, and latest research as well as photocopiable materials for teachers .