Tags: Gifted and Talented | Gifted and talented pupils | Leading teacher for gifted and talented | Teaching and Learning | Teaching Assistant

What is it like for a former pupil to return to her old school as a G&T teaching assistant?

David Camplin sets the scene and Sarah Horan describes her time as a G&T pupil and her experience of the project that brought her back to St George’s High School as a TA

When we started writing this article the intent was that there would be two distinct voices. The first, that of a middle-aged ex-LA adviser and strand coordinator, and the second that of a young woman who had been at the vanguard of some exciting developments in her old school, and who had since returned as a catalyst for experiment.

How does a bright, articulate student perceive the school after she returned to as a teaching assistant for the most able mathematicians in years 9 and 11? Sarah’s role as a TA was an experiment in two ways. Firstly, the school had never utilised TAs specifically to work with the most able and, secondly, Sarah was employed per lesson, to fit in with her undergraduate studies and the school’s needs.

The school has made great strides under its headteacher, Phil Harte, and has gained technology status; its maths department has also been awarded lead status within the authority.  – David Camplin

Sarah – the pupil
As a student in the top sets, I was always in the largest classes with the widest range of ability. In mathematics at KS3 the class was 32 and the ability ranged from Level 5 to 8. Whilst most of the teaching was aimed at a perceived ‘middle’ group, much of the emphasis of teacher time was placed upon those who might struggle to reach Level 5. As success for the teacher and school was measured solely in terms of the percentage of Level 5+ and Level 6+ this was understandable. As one who was one of the most able in the group, I was conscious that teaching frequently felt aimed at others and that I, and those like me, would be able to get there by ourselves. We could get to the Level 6+ on our own… but we needed specific teaching to reach the heights of Level 8 and Level EP.

Excellence in Cities
The Excellence in Cities (EiC) initiative had just started when I was at secondary school and I was part of the ‘gifted’; that label was one we hated as it isolated us from others. We were taken out of the classroom and given ‘experiences’ that were meant to stretch us but merely removed us from the classroom.

Looking back, the experience of being G&T was something that was always seen as an extra; little seemed to change in our ordinary classes and lessons were, generally easy. Certainly I was never stretched in ways that would have helped me access EP levels, or A* – or even beyond. Coursework, which could have stretched me, wore me down and I fulfilled my purpose with paste and pictures rather than intellectual candour.
I went to a good school that cared greatly for all of its students and did everything that it could to ensure that they reached the magic C grade. The school was trapped by league tables and government diktat; it was about a mediocrity, where the average was the constant measure of success.

We needed specialist teaching, as a normal part of our lessons that took us as far above GCSE as our minds could take us. Nobody could have worked harder for us than my maths teacher, but she was constrained by a syllabus and systems that did not best prepare us for the demands of A-level and did not give her the time to personalise learning at that level. I was introduced to the findings of the 1999 Commons Education and Emploment Select Committee on the education of the highly able and immediately felt empathy with the first of their findings, that teachers and schools did not see the needs of students with high ability as a priority.

But the school that I went to was also a school that was changing, and my year was a part of that change.

Year 10 had finished well for me. I had applied to attend an HEFCE summer school at Summerville College, Oxford. I knew when I started my final year that a university career for me was not only a possibility but also necessary and learning at the start of year 11 that I was head girl gave me a pretty positive start.

Thinking outside the box
With a friend I persuaded David Camplin (then an LA adviser attached to the school), and John Sharpe (G&T coordinator) to approach the new headteacher so that we could establish a staff-student working party to look at boys’ achievement. This was a new venture and we hoped it would take the EiC initiative into fresh areas.

There were still over 30 of us in our maths lessons and, because of the size of the intake, the top group included students who were taking the higher and the intermediate papers. Those of us undertaking the higher paper were convinced that our teacher was spending all her time with the intermediate students, and, of course, those doing the intermediate paper were convinced that the reverse was happening.

Luckily the maths department was good at thinking ‘outside the box’ and decided to use the school’s attached adviser as a TA – but a TA for the top group. The system worked well and for three lessons out of four David worked with all of us but, once a week he withdrew a group for examination practice whilst the maths teacher taught the specific higher syllabus. The system worked so well that the school returned its best maths results – indeed its best school results – and laid the framework for future developments.

Sarah – the TA
Eight years after I had first started at St George’s High School, I was asked to come back as part of a pilot scheme using TAs in top set mathematics. I was to work alongside Mr Chadwick in his Year 9 class and to remove the intermediate candidates from the Year 11 top set lesson and work with them separately.

The school needed to establish me as an official worker and I was therefore CRB checked and designated as a Level 1 teaching assistant. I still had a fairly recent knowledge of the curriculum and knew that if I needed advice it would be provided. My pay had been assessed on the basis that I would have preparation work to do. Funding came from the standard G&T budget.

Year 9
The first thing I established with the students, was that I was to be referred to as Sarah and not ‘miss’. In the Year 9 lessons, I worked within the classroom and aided students with their class work; however, I noticed a similar problem that was present when I attended St George’s – the lack of motivation and achievement of clever boys.

Judd did not realise quite how powerful his brain was and where his ability could take him. The KS3 work was not remotely touching his level of intelligence and when tested on his mental ability, he was turning to me with an answer before I had even reached it myself (I am currently doing a degree in finance and accounting at Salford University.) 

I was determined to try and influence Judd. I wanted to make him understand that there was more to life than what he saw in his immediate surroundings but that achieving what was inside you didn’t mean that you had to abandon everything you had grown up with. But I was different because I went to university. I was able to push him bluntly, and could say things to him no teacher could get away with saying – and was encouraged to do so by a school that truly makes every student matter. I told him he was going to get a Level 8 – his own teacher’s targeting allowed Judd to build in failure.

The group that Judd was in was a strong one and it was obvious that, within the group, it was ‘OK to be clever’ and they fed off each other’s interests and abilities. It was also good to see that there were able boys who saw themselves as a part of this group. The school ethos was valuing their high achievement and this was transmitted to others who were less able, without anyone feeling inferior. Good schools make individuals feel valued and teach them according to their needs – wherever that might take them.

Judd got his Level 8 and 37% of the year gained one of the top two grades in mathematics.

Year 11
I worked very differently with the Year 11s. First, we were outside the classroom environment so there was a much more informal attitude between myself and the four students I worked with; the three-year age gap worked well as they all recognised me from when I was at school and it was a lot easier to gain their trust and respect.

In the first few sessions we had together, we worked through past exam questions. By removing students from the room we also, coincidentally, cut the group size from the over-large 30+ and allowed the teacher to teach to all of the class rather than teaching to a middle group who might represent nobody. 

As I got to know them, I started talking to them about their future and telling them about the experiences I had had so far through going to college and university. I hope that I delivered the message of how important education is to achieve a better quality of life, but I only worked with them for five months before their GCSEs.

Final words
I feel it is important for students to have role models that they can look up to who will, hopefully, cause a much-needed change in the aspirations of students within the M38 postcode. I was lucky; I had parents who gave me the belief I could achieve anything I wanted to achieve, even if sometimes it did not feel attainable at the time. They gave me a determination that I would achieve my dreams. I also went to a school that cared whether I was successful and a college that built on this.

I hope the work I did at St George’s will give some students the same determination I had that’s helped me get so far.

The project will move on, and other departments, and other schools, have already shown an interest in developing work along this line. I shall carry on as long as my studies allow and am sure that the use of undergraduates, in the way that we have trialled, can only benefit the future development of students. They can gain much from regular access to a role model from within their own community and from the advantages that skilled assistance, at appropriate levels can have – other schools should try a pilot of their own.

At the start of this project Sarah Horan was a 19-year old undergraduate at Salford University reading accountancy and finance, and at the time of writing she was in her second year. She had been a member of St George’s High School’s G&T cohort since 1999 and was head girl in her final year.

David Camplin is a freelance consultant who has been a secondary deputy headteacher, local authority adviser and G&T strand coordinator.

This article first appeared in Gifted & Talented Update – Apr 2007

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