Monday, March 22, 1999 Published at 14:54 GMT
Extra help for gifted pupils divides heads
Tony Blair and David Blunkett at St Pauls Way, London
Headteachers are divided over the viability of giving extra tuition to more able pupils.
The type of scheme that the education secretary has in mind has been running for eight years in one of the worst-performing secondary schools in his Sheffield constituency.
"I don't like streaming of children and labelling of children," she said, "and yet our able pupils are in a minority, and the danger is they keep their heads down and under-achieve - they don't want to be seen as the ones who are always putting their hands up to answer questions.
"There is a big danger in that, so I have swallowed my concerns, and in fact I think it has proved very effective."
Through primary school test results and an early assessment of their English, maths and reasoning skills, brighter pupils are identified when they join the school. In the most recent intake, this has picked out 31 of the intake of 224 children.
They do not have special lessons as such but meet once a month after school - rising to once a week in their third year - to learn study skills and take on extra work they would not be able to do in a whole-ability class, a recent example being chromatography in chemistry.
The focus is not purely academic - drama and art might also be covered. The children also get individual academic counselling once a year.
"The aim of that is to make them aware of their potential," Ms Watson said. "We talk about the future. We talk about university. We meet their parents and try to set their sights high."
Often the children are from families where no-one previously has gone into higher education. The corollary is, she says, that it also reassures parents who do have ambitions for their children that they are being catered for - one of the government's main aims.
This is a disadvantaged area. About half of the school's pupils are entitled to free school meals. There is chronic ill health, the headteacher says.
Is there no resentment from the majority who are not singled out for special treatment? Some name calling initially, she says, but no - no more than if the children were being chosen to represent the school in sport, for instance.
"What's the difference? They are just having their needs met."
Other headteachers take a different view of the scheme.
The head of South Manchester High School in Withenshawe, Phil Taylor, says one has to consider the impression it gives staff and pupils in inner-city schools.
"There is an implicit assumption here that they are somehow failing," he said. "This isn't the case - the vast majority of inner-city schools are doing very well in very difficult circumstances.
"Insofar as there is a problem in state education in inner cities, it's to do with the effects of poverty and social deprivation."
The government had to tackle those problems if it wanted to improve the output from schools.
"What comprehensive education is all about it is trying to do the best for everybody. It's an inclusive idea," he said.
"A government that is supposedly concerned with social inclusion, as it rightly should be, for them to come along with a further division into sheep and goats is really quite bizarre.
"The previous government introduced all kinds of divisiveness into the state education system, and unfortunately it looks as though the people that really call the shots in this government have no real understanding of state education and are continuing further along that road."