Felicity Waters reports
It is not often that a headteacher likes to be seen out of his suit, much less in fancy dress. But in David Swallow's case, his image as a gladiator in school literature bearing the strapline "take the opportunity", has inspired his boys to win a great battle - that of self-belief.
Often from poor backgrounds or with behavioural difficulties, many pupils at Barry comprehensive in south Wales used to begin Year 11 with poor prospects and an uncertain future.
But with the targeted help of dedicated staff who give up their lunchtimes, weekends and much of their holidays, youngsters are being given the tools to learn, and the confidence to succeed.
Huge commitment is required from staff, pupils and parents for the school's Y11 mentoring scheme - and there is no extra funding. But their efforts are getting results. More than 60 per cent of boys are expected to gain five or more GCSEs at grades A*-C this summer, compared to just 24 per cent seven years ago.
Those who are underachieving at the end of Y10 get intensive coaching in focused subjects to maximise their chances of success. The school runs lunchtime revision sessions four days a week, coursework catch-up sessions out of hours as well as a residential study weekend in a hotel at Easter.
The parents of more than 130 boys have also been sent letters each week informing them of their sons' progress.
"We're breaking the mould," said Graham Jenkins, teacher, head mentor and programme co-ordinator. "It is a big commitment for teachers and our admin staff. But we're turning boys around and making them feel positive about their education."
During a meeting with parents at the end of Y10, targeted boys are assigned to one of two groups and sign a contract committing themselves to an intensive programme of extra sessions over the year. Parents are also given sessions on revision techniques so that they can encourage work at home.
The 44 boys in this year's "achievement" group underperformed in Y10 but with extra support have the potential to achieve five or more good GCSEs.
They get extra support in English, maths and science, and two other subjects.
This year there are 95 in the "focus" group who will pursue a vocational subject and get targeted support in one or two of their GCSE subjects. All students are given diaries and have personal tutors who check their progress.
Rhys O'Sullivan was in the achievement group last year but is about to take his GCSEs and wants to go to the sixth form.
"Going away to a hotel to revise was definitely the best bit. Before the sessions I wouldn't have known how to revise, I would just read things and hope they went in," he said.
Focus group member Jacob Gray also wants to go to the sixth form. He said:
"I use cards now to revise properly. I would have felt overloaded having to do 10 subjects but with one or two to focus on I feel more confident."
Lyn Howell, assistant head, says the plan now is to keep the momentum going. "Before this sort of mentoring we may well have lost these boys in the system.
"There will always be those who fall by the wayside, but with a team effort this programme is keeping a lot more on board and some we have been able to completely turn around ."