Glittering prize-givings and plenty of praise are the way to improve key stage 3 results
Schools must stop ignoring key stage 3 and reward pupil achievement to stop results falling further behind England, a headteacher said this week.
Mike Pickard, head of Blackwood Comprehensive, near Caerphilly, said KS3 was being overlooked. But he said his school's focus on 11 to 14-year- olds, and recognising their successes with prizegiving ceremonies is paying off with results.
Earlier this month (July 4), TES Cymru revealed that Wales was now lagging further behind England at KS3 than at any time since post-devolution records began. Big differences between the two nations in pupils reaching expected standards in core subjects - especially in maths - were recorded in Assembly government figures published last year.
An average 59.2 per cent of pupils at Blackwood achieved level 5 or above at KS3 in 2005-7, against a Wales average of 57.6 per cent. It is a huge advance on 2000-2 when it was just 46.7 per cent. At the time of its last inspection in 2003, the school had 20 per cent free school meal entitlement.
"We want all our pupils to reach their potential at KS3. It's a two-way thing - what we do for them and what they can do for themselves," said Mr Pickard, who has been at the helm of Blackwood for nine years.
He said KS3 is often seen as simply a stage pupils have to go through. "In the past it's been very content-driven, very prescriptive, and about how much we can fill up these kids with facts. Now the emphasis is on what skills they can learn," he said.
Opportunities are now made for KS3 pupils to earn key skills qualifications at the school. They are also encouraged to get involved in other extra-curricular activities including national competitions.
Mr Pickard says it is difficult to compare Wales and England since the abolition of Sats in Wales. But at Blackwood, the progress of pupils at KS3 is closely monitored by progress leaders (heads of year) and their achievements are recognised and celebrated.
Last Tuesday, the school held its seventh annual prize-giving event for Years 7, 8 and 9. Certificates were given to 133 pupils which recognised progress, achievement and attendance.
The event was attended by guests including former Blackwood-pupil-turned- professional-boxer Nathan Cleverly, sparring partner of Joe Calzaghe, RSC actor Brad Freegard and Torchwood and Doctor Who star Eve Myles.
Mr Pickard said the idea of recognising success at KS3 was of the utmost importance, and has contributed to the school's own success at KS3 while others falter.
Another one for the trophy cabinet
Critics of award ceremonies might accuse of them of favouring elite high achievers. But there is growing support in Wales for celebrating pupil achievement, academic or otherwise.
According to Gareth Pierce, chief executive of Welsh exam board the WJEC, prize-giving for pupil achievement can send out a positive message. Teachers, says Mr Pierce, should also be looking to pick up trophies for the school cabinet.
"A formal ceremony is an excellent opportunity for us to congratulate our pupils and also to recognise exceptional teaching standards," says Mr Pierce.
"If we can draw attention to young people's achievements and the teaching qualities that underpin it, it can only benefit and inspire school and college communities."
Elen Newcombe, a sixth-former at King Henry VIII School in Abergavenny, said an award looked good on a university application or on a CV. "I think a prize can actually encourage you to work harder," she said.
The WJEC will be holding its first awards ceremony in December - sponsored by The TES - for A-level and advanced Welsh baccalaureate students sitting WJEC exams this summer.