Wales used to be synonymous with high educational standards and expectations. But the devastation of its mining and steel industries has brought a steep rise in poverty which has hit schools. Problems have mounted at many schools in the valleys and, for heads trying to raise standards, it can seem an uphill task.
When Gill Coleman became a head eight years ago, her task was to forge a single positive culture in two newly-merged schools - a junior and an infants on adjacent sites in Williamstown, near Tonypandy. The junior school children had been underachieving and behaving badly. The infants' section, although functioning well, was demoralised and resented its neighbour's bad reputation.
Mrs Coleman said: "There were extremely serious problems. There was a lack of direction and teacher expectations of pupil achievement were low."
The school is a few hundred yards from where, in the middle of the last century, the first pit in the Rhondda valley was sunk by Walter Coffin, a pioneer of coal industrialisation in south Wales. The 116-year-old school, one of the oldest in the area, serves fourformer mining villages: Williamstown, Edmondstown, Penrhiwfer and Trebanog.
But now the mines are closed. As many as 30 per cent of the pupils' parents are unemployed and more than 30 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals. The school, built above the mine workings, suffers from slippage and is prone to flooding.
The odds are stacked against success, but what has been achieved there has been remarkable. Williamstown is now one of 32 schools taking part in a project to identify the characteristics of improving schools in Caerphilly, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda Cynon Taff (see below).
When Mrs Coleman arrived much of the school was damp, dismal and dirty. Her first priority was to make it a pleasant and comfortable environment in which to teach and learn. Limited funds mean there is a constant struggle to maintain the buildings. Last October, they flooded twice in two days after lead seals on the roof were stolen. The leading was stolen again in March and more flooding followed. In March, she was relying on a team of convicted offenders to repaint the school as part of their community service.
Mrs Coleman's second priority was to tackle poor pupil behaviour by focusing on a core of disruptive children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. She appointed a special educational needs teacher, who set about rehabilitating the children.
Next, she started to crank up the school's standards. Morning assembly became an important forum for setting the tone and projecting the standards the staff wanted children to live by. A rewards system was introduced and teachers made it clear that they had high expectations of the children. "We will have the best, try our best and be the best," Mrs Coleman said.
All children were taught copperplate to improve the appearance of their handwriting and given simple rules about presenting their work. Teachers would only accept the pupils' best work and the children gradually learned to take pride in what they did. The school also made its efforts to improve the children's spoken language capabilities.
Children working at key stage 1 and 2 started doing 15 minutes of number tables, number bonds and mental arithmetic every day to build up their basic maths.
By 1996 the school had markedly improved its pupils' maths and linguistic skills.
The following year the school introduced a computerised maths interactive learning program. The program meant pupils could work on problems individually and teachers monitor their progress. The software analyses each pupil's strengths and weaknesses. On examining the feedback, the school realised that many pupils were achieving better results in one-to-one computer sessions than they were in class.
Mrs Coleman said: "We realised that the pupils could do far more, that they were not being challenged." So last year half an hour a day was added to the time allocated to maths and to literacy, reducing the time for foundation subjects.
The school also started setting the children into ability groups - top, middle and lower - irrespective of age. Now pupils spend 90 minutes every morning studying maths, including one session where children perform mental calculations and give oral responses and another where they write down answers to oral questions. Maths classes take place at the same time for all three sets, enabling children to move up a set when they are ready.
Over the past eight years, results have improved dramatically. Since introducing the intensive maths classes, five 11-year-olds and one 10-year-old have passed foundation level GCSE maths (two grade Ds, two Es and two Fs). This year 15 11-year-olds and one nine-year-old are being entered for intermediate level GCSE.
Mrs Coleman added: "It has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process. It has all been child-led. It is how these children are getting on, or not, and what are doing about it. I have got a lot of reflective practitioners who are constantly looking at children's achievements and finding ways to move it all on."
Success at maths has made all the children feel they are achievers and this has had a strong influence on raising standards in the other two core subjects - English and science - and across the curriculum in general. It has also drawn attention to the school in a positive way. The school has been visited by teachers from some 25 local schools keen to emulate its maths achievements.