Some of the country's brightest children gathered in Brighton as part of a pilot scheme that would not only inspire them to use their imaginations to the fullest, but give them the confidence to be themselves. Fergus Crow reports.
Roedean school perches forbiddingly on the cliff-top overlooking Brighton Marina. At a distance, the school is unwelcoming - the long run up to the main entrance, the tall Victorian towers that rise above the steep lawns, the bleak, wind-ravaged location.
For many, this private girls' boarding school epitomises privilege.An exclusive club that would not welcome non-members into its heart easily; an ivory tower.
But one morning in July this year, 84 children were haring up and down the corridors of Roedean, each unconcerned with the gravity of their surroundings. They had gathered there for East Sussex Children's University's first residential summer school for gifted and talented pupils - the "Gamp;Ts".
Participants had been selected from eight state secondary and primary schools from across East Sussex, identified as being those who would benefit most. They included the academically excellent, those talented in sport or music and younger children whose gifts hadn't yet had a chance to flourish. They all came to the cliff-top that morning to begin a week of adventure.
The choice of location was, as it turned out, inspired. Our theme: Leonardo Da Vinci - Man and Machine.
I was one of eight teachers who would work in one or more of the three "zones". As a writer and English teacher, I joined the performing arts and music zone; others staffed sport and science or art and technology. With us was a Theatre in Education director, a project manager and a small battalion of support staff - all carefully selected for what was, in educational terms, something of a leap of faith.
The 84 children who had made it had come through a selection process similar to that of the teachers, each having been initially nominated by their schools.
The model was a brave one and its inception and execution owes a great deal to Anita Shefford, who managed the Leonardo project that week. The dark circles around her eyes were testament to the work involved in setting it up, but her obvious happiness following a visit from Her Majesty's Inspectorate was a joy to behold. The inspector loved what was going on.
Watching parents filing out of the hall on that first morning, I was struck by the youth of some of these newly abandoned faces, but also by how high spirits seemed. It was clear that they were already a community, drawn together by their intelligence and abilities, knowing that here they could communicate without fear of being vilified.
I learned in my first meeting with my tutor group what they felt about being "clever" at school. They had instantly sensed that in this environment it would be fine to answer questions without the inevitable sighs from classmates that assail "the boffin" every moment of their classroom day. They would be free from ratty teachers rounding on them for asking the wrong questions; free from being left to get on; free to make mistakes and get things wrong - and that's quite a freedom.
The pattern of the week involved a daily programme of lectures and workshops, with each child scheduled to participate in activities based in the zone of their choice. These activities would rotate during the day, and we found that there was more than enough in their zones to occupy them, although we encouraged cross-zoning as much as we could.
Communal time, reflective time and rest time were also scheduled into the day. This was not, after all, supposed to be a week at school.
In English sessions, the children explored and explained their imaginations. Leonardo was a perfect stimulus for our work, literally as a writer of fables and metaphorically as a figure whose life was built around dreams of flight.
On the final day we counted as successes a live poetry installation, several terrific performance pieces and a brilliant stream of consciousness that got the kids' ideas out on paper and sent them flowing down over the front steps and on to the drive. Most of the mysteries of existence had been well and truly dealt with.
Those in the art zone were exploring some of Leonardo's painting techniques, and there was a move afoot to build a replica of his flying machine.
In science, they learned the principles of flight and jet propulsion. They danced, they performed, they painted, they battered oil drums in the name of rhythm and soul.
They flipped and threw each other across the sports hall in judo sessions. They swam, shouted, slept and ate.
The children designed and led the learning in a way we had only dreamed might be possible. Certainly, they had safe frameworks to fall back on. We knew where we were going and what we wanted them to achieve in a broad sense, but they were pushing further, and as teachers we decided to join them.
The project's theatre director had deemed that the climax was to be a processional piece, loosely titled Flight, in which several hundred adults and children would be led to performance areas dotted around Roedean's grounds by a troupe of noisy percussionists. Installations would pepper the route.
The final two days were spent frantically filming every face we could find for a video installation. The images were to be backed by music written and produced by the children working in the music technology zone with Red Zebra, the summer school's resident music and percussion group.
In the sports hall, a dramatic hybrid had evolved - judodrama, in which the children translated a series of narratives about conflict into pieces of judo. In the final performance, this led on to a tear-jerking dance sequence, then to a celebratory closing, with the kids releasing a big helium balloon, with pieces of card attached announcing their dreams and aspirations. Then they unveiled their replica flying machine.
In retrospect, it was a week of intense work and enormous fun, and, as the performance neared, I wondered why school couldn't be more like this.
I was constantly struck by how conscientiously the participants had taken to their roles. We'd had the odd glitch, of course, but generally they were fantastic - engaged and on course throughout the week. They even refused to raise more than a shuffle of discomfort when confronted by a three-hour lecture from a woman who responded to the children's well-meaning questions as if they had sworn at her. We all learned a lot about approaches we could refine for very able children in school.
On the final afternoon, the procession wound its way noisily down the drive to the front lawn. As the visits to the poetry reading, the drama performances, the art and video installations, the judo-drama, and the dance concluded, I knew these children were more comfortable with who they were, that what they had learned academically was nothing compared to what they had learned about their own place in the world.
I watched the balloon rise into the summer sky and, as it gradually disappeared from sight, the replica flying machine came into view. I tried to imagine what my slip of paper might have had on it - what my aspirations and dreams should be. Then I took out a piece of paper and a pen and wrote:
"A pint of lager and some sunshine please, Leonardo." I got what I wanted. The man was a genius, after all.
Planning for next year's programme is under way and funding has been made available, through the DFEE's Gifted and Talented programme, to run similar provision in 2002 and 2003
* INSTIGATING SUCCESS
In 1999, 34 Gifted and Talented summer schools were piloted across the country. Following the success of this scheme, 500 summer schools for gifted and talented pupils ran countrywide this summer, with LEAs accessing a fund of pound;4.5 million from the Department for Education and Employment. Additional funding was available from the New Opportunities Fund. Individual LEAs developed models in line with DFEE guidance on provision for "Gamp;T" pupils.
DFEE guidance states that the objective of such initiatives is "to enrich and extend the educational provision of gifted and talented pupils completing Years 6 to 9". Gifted and talented pupils are expected to come from the most able five to 10 per cent of pupils in participating schools.
Guidelines suggest that the scheme should "stretch these children and enhance their educational achievement", "enable them to engage early with material they would not normally encounter until later" and that it will "promote access to higher education for able children from disadvantaged backgrounds".
Initiatives this year included pupils in Leeds working with Leeds United FC on teamworking and management skills, and Blackburn pupils recording music with students from Huddersfield University.