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Climbing half a league upward

A weekend in a youth hostel was the key to exam success for a south Wales comprehensive. Victoria Neumark reports

Very pleasant children. They did a lot of useful work. We're happy to have them again." Proprietor of a tea-shop talking about Cheltenham Ladies' College? Or youth hostel warden describing a study weekend by one of the toughest comprehensives in South Wales?

Jim Partridge "was a little apprehensive" at the booking by Pen-y-dre's dynamic head John Williams, but was "impressed" at the level of commitment shown by staff and students on their weekends at Slimbridge Youth Hostel.

The study weekends are part of a larger initiative which has seen Pen-y-dre shoot up the Mid Glamorgan league-tables from bottom to middle in two years, win the education Quality Award for Wales and gain Pounds 5,000 funding from the local Tec.

The school, in the former steel town of Merthyr Tydfil, has 1,200 pupils, 40 per cent of whom are on free school meals. Although, as Mr Williams says, "the school has always done a very good job for its catchment area", it was not until Mr Williams's arrival, two and a half years ago that, as Alan Parry, one of his deputies, says, "the school became much more clearly focused". So it was that the school as a whole, management team, teachers and pupils, decided that they were going to double the results within two years.

Thus in the core curriculum subjects, passes at A* to C are up from 16 per cent to 30 per cent in English, 13 per cent to 28 per cent in maths, double science 8 per cent to 33 per cent and technology 14 per cent to 42 per cent.

Strategies to bring this result about were implemented throughout the school, but particularly at key stage 4. Every faculty agreed to provide one hour a week homework club, where children could go, not just to do homework but also to ask for help and discuss work. To make it "as pleasant an experience as possible", coffee and biscuits were provided and a free late bus laid on.

Each faculty area then arranged a study weekend - 11 in all, covering the national curriculum areas over the year, with two each for English and technology. On each weekend three teachers at least, with Mr Williams or one of his deputies to cover non-teaching time, devoted 48 hours to intensive study sessions interspersed with meals and walks.

Although Mr Williams says, "for our children the whole experience of a residential course is important, with all the social and cultural benefits", for the teachers virtue brought its own reward, with improved results, attendance and morale showing up almost immediately. Mr Williams hastens to add: "we do our best to make things as pleasant as possible for the staff. We cannot remunerate them, but we make sure they have comfortable single rooms and a meal at a good restaurant and get a good rest at the weekend."

The weekends' cost - at Slimbridge, between Pounds 1,300 off-peak to Pounds 1,700 peak-season for the hire of the hostel, plus coach fares - comes from the school budget. Hiring the whole hostel, with use of classrooms, no distraction from other guests and all meals included, is the best way to run such a weekend, according to both the school and the YHA.

Some weekends have been spent at the school itself, one at a hotel in Brecon and one at a hostel in France. The surroundings and amenities are important, but not so important as the closely planned timetable. The English weekend, for example, which Mr Williams took included coursework, listening and talking sessions and videos of Shakespeare.

Put together a "huge commitment from staff and an imaginative programme like this and there is no doubt that the children do get a lot out of it," as Mr Parry says.

But it is also important not to rest on your laurels, says Mr Williams: "At our school teachers have to promote not just the academic work but also the social and cultural underpinnings. We have to go out and get the results. "

It is encouraging that the success of the homework clubstudy weekend programme has also had knock-on effects in the rest of the school: A-level points went up from 9 to 13 and key stage 3 SATs results also improved. "It's all because of the focusing," says Mr Parry.

Setting new targets is part of the Total Quality Management (TQM) strategy which won the Quality Award for the school, that and a constant review of success among the whole school community - students, staff and parents.

"We did an enormous selling job on achievement," says Mr Williams. Mr Parry adds, "The work ethic is stronger now than it's ever been, among students and staff both, but if it remains the same it will be taken for granted."

A summer school is now on the cards for pupils between Years 10 and 11, not to lose the momentum. Other plans to generate renewal are raising the targets for staying on in the sixth form from the current 50 per cent to 70 per cent with 80 per cent in view and increasing study club attendance from 33 per cent to 40 per cent of Year 11.

Inclusiveness underlies the school's three targets of raising attendance, achievement and self-esteem. No one who wants to go on a study weekend is turned down; and since a recent survey showed that lower achievers knew of all the plans but felt the programme was not for them, a weekend for learning support staff and pupils is planned for a country park site, with study focused on Part 1 GNVQ. Inclusiveness also marks the school attitude, whether in the strong and able management team or in initiatives such as volunteering for a University of Newcastle project to help schools develop teaching and learning styles. These weekends away are not holidays, they are part of learning for life.

For details of how to arrange study weekends in youth hostels, contact the Youth Hostels Association, Trevelyan House, St Albans, Herts AL1 2DY. Tel: 01727 855215

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