As the children arrived at school one chilly Saturday morning I knew they had a challenging task ahead of them. As their little faces sat awaiting their first assessed task, I also knew they were going to eat it for breakfast because their skill level was so high. And they did.
The story started a couple of years earlier. I was an Advanced Skills Teacher in IT and had gained some funding from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES, which just shows how long ago it was) to accelerate the progress of 15 children in IT. It was an exciting prospect. There was no blueprint for the work and I had free rein on what I wanted to do. The children were in years 4 and 5 and were not chosen on academic ability – just that they had an interest in boosting their skills in IT.
So I developed a curriculum to advance their software and coding skills. I taught the children for two hours every Saturday for two years. I was not subject to any performance management, or under any pressure to achieve anything extraordinary. Nobody asked me what I was teaching the children or what the 'milestones' were – in fact, the only member of school staff who ever saw what we did was the caretaker who opened and locked up each week.
A few weeks into the project, I realised the children needed a challenge to show how far our skills had come so I decided to challenge them to complete their GCSE. It wasn’t something I had ever heard anyone do, but when I spoke to the children they were over the moon to try it. For some of the children it would not only be an extraordinary achievement for themselves, they would also be the first person in their family to achieve a GCSE.
I had no knowledge of how to take children through the curriculum. I tried to work with our local secondary school, but it was tough to get support from the teachers who were busy getting their own students through GCSEs. So I learned the syllabus. The children loved the challenge: the content was so different compared with their everyday sessions and they enjoyed linking it to a real-life context, rather than it being very hypothetical.
Towards the end of the year we had a recording task to do as part of the qualification, so we went to the local secondary school to use some of their equipment. Lucy*, a girl in the group, asked if her brother could help us out as he attended the school. I agreed (without asking any questions) and soon discovered that without him we would have been lost. Her brother knew where all of the equipment was and helped us set it up. I subsequently learned he had been temporarily excluded a number of times and was later permanently excluded. I could not believe that the young man who had been so helpful was the same person.
Before the end of term I submitted all of the coursework for the children and eagerly awaited results day. I had never done this before so I was just as nervous as the children. When the results came through I gathered all the children together to celebrate what we had achieved. They all passed – I was over the moon and I was, and still am, immensely proud of what they achieved. It seemed unreal that they could have attained so highly whilst still at primary school. It did take time and dedication, but to award 15 children with a GCSE in IT was worth every single Saturday.
Not long after, I moved onto another school in a neighbouring local authority. One day, as I was dismissing my class, one of my children asked if their cousin, who I had taught, could come in and say hello. Low and behold, it was Lucy. After a general catch-up, I asked how her IT studies went. She told me that the GCSE she achieved at primary school with me was the only GCSE she ever achieved.
I’ve reflected a lot on why Lucy did so well at primary school, but lost her way in secondary school. I’ve tried to pin it down, but I have never found a good answer – it might be the transition or just that her school couldn’t hook her into what she was really good at.
All I know is that she was capable of achieving something remarkable, and hearing her story made me even more sure that I would do whatever I needed to engage children in successful learning when I was the head of my own school – a philosophy which I uphold, and strive for for every pupil, to this day.
* All names have been changed
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