A secondary modern has just won an award for its work with gifted pupils. Martin Whittaker reports
The game of bridge is not usually regarded as a young person's pastime and yet one Buckinghamshire school is using it to challenge its brighter children.
Chesham Park community college introduced the card game as one of a growing number of after-school activities for its gifted and talented pupils, including chess, science and creative writing.
It has also introduced a buddy scheme, where more able children from Years 10 and 11 mentor Year 7s. There is extension work in class for more able pupils, a debating society and Year 10 pupils have written and presented a murder mystery play to children at a local primary.
Headteacher Irene Perrin says: "We introduced bridge to try and encourage more lateral thinking. It gets them to think on a higher level than they would normally."
Chesham Park is a small 11-18 secondary modern in Buckinghamshire, which still has the 11-plus. Standards reached by students entering in Year 7 are below average because the highest-attaining 30 per cent go to the grammar school.
While it has an above-average proportion of pupils with special educational needs, it also provides well for its more able students. Yesterday Chesham Park won a challenge award to prove it.
The award was developed by a partnership of Buckinghamshire school improvement service, neighbouring West Berkshire education authority and Nace, the National Association for Able Children in Education. It helps schools to audit and evaluate provision for gifted and talented pupils, leading to external recognition.
Heather Clements, senior adviser with Buckinghamshire LEA and Elaine Ricks, school improvement adviser with West Berkshire, developed the award framework after realising that provision for more able pupils in the local schools was piecemeal.
"We found that some schools had good things going on, but some of them didn't recognise this good practice," she says. "Some of the work was generated by the enthusiasm of one person and didn't really have whole-school ownership.
"It was fragmented in schools, and fragmented at authority level, and nationally. I started to ask what does the Office for Standards in Education say 'good' looks like? What do the strategists say 'good' looks like? I was getting lots of different little messages about it, but nobody had brought it together."
The resulting framework has been very well-received and after being piloted in 17 primary and secondaries across Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, is now being snapped up by most other authorities.
Nace says the introduction of this new benchmark is timely given the current emphasis on school self-evaluation, personalised learning and inclusion. It claims the award draws all this together, enabling the whole school to audit, produce action plans and gather evidence of effective provision.
The framework consists of 10 elements which act as a checklist, each containing objective criteria and suggested evidence of effective practice.
One element looks at a range of learning styles, teaching strategies and classroom organisation. Another deals with the commitment to improve the staff skills, while a third tackles targets for improvement.
Schools piloting the framework say that all their departments now plan for gifted and talented pupils, pupils are more effectively challenged and there is more systematic tracking.
The framework usually takes two years to implement. When a school can demonstrate that it meets the criteria of the 10 elements, it can apply for the challenge award.
Elaine Ricks from West Berkshire LEA said the framework is popular in non-Excellence in Cities areas where schools have difficulty supporting gifted and talented pupils.
"To gain the award, you have to demonstrate a whole-school commitment to quality provision for these pupils. There's also a strong element in the framework on underachievement. We say you always have to be sure that all talents and gifts are recognised. In other words, it's an inclusive framework."
At Chesham Park, the award arrived at the same time as a clutch of other plaudits, including gaining specialist school status for the performing arts, Artsmark silver and a healthy schools award.
The school aims to identify the top 10 per cent of each year group and has brought in a range of strategies. Subject teachers are made aware of gifted and talented pupils in their classes so they can serve them better.
In-service training time is given to discussing the most effective teaching methods, and the school provides teacher coaching.
The school has its share of more able children, but headteacher Mrs Perrin said it wasn't getting the best out of them. But having the award has given the school a much-needed boost.
"It has made sure that we have stayed focused," she said. "I think it's going to prove to everybody in the community that we do have able, gifted and talented children although we are classified as a secondary modern."
John O'Gaunt community technology college in Hungerford, West Berkshire, also piloted the award.
It was recently inspected and its gifted and talented provision was declared as "outstanding" by Ofsted. Three students are members of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick university and a dozen more have applied.
Students who are in the top 5 to 10 per cent academically from Year 6 data go on a special register in Year 7, and subject departments are asked to further identify students who display emerging talents or academic skills, particularly in the performing arts.
Staff have copies of the register and are urged to provide examples of exceptional work to include in pupils' portfolios.
The new framework has not been without its difficulties. Lynette Manser, John O' Gaunt's gifted and talented co-ordinator, said it can look daunting at first.
"When you look at it you think 'we're never going to achieve this'. But when we actually broke it down and involved everybody, we realised that so much was already being done and just needed to be developed. The award assessors came in and interviewed the students as part of it, and they were amazed by their attitudes," she says.
"One of the students said it's brilliant because it's OK to be bright at this school. And that's really what our main aim was. We wanted to make it OK to be bright.
"And from the feedback from students we have actually managed that. Because they are labelled as more able, they have a kind of group identity and it helps combat bullying.
"We have found we have lots of students who aren't more able, who actually want to become more able. They almost want to be part of the club."
The challenge award, provision for able, gifted and talented pupils, a self-evaluation framework for schools and LEAs, is published by National Association for Able Children in Education. For details contact Nace National Office, 01865 861879 or email firstname.lastname@example.org