Recognised for its pastoral care and links with the community, a Gwent school is proud to be a comprehensive. Biddy Passmore reports
West Monmouth school in Pontypool, with its imposing facade of Victorian Gothic red brick, looks like a place that would produce hard-working, rugger-playing boys in blazers.
And that is exactly what it was: a boys' grammar school, founded by the Haberdashers' Company in 1896 (a sister institution of the now independent Monmouth school). Its most famous alumnus is Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Today, however, the school is alive with 1,150 boys and girls, wearing a far less formal uniform. For West Monmouth became an 11-16 comprehensive in 1982, the last school in Gwent to go comprehensive.
And, along with high academic standards, inspectors have praised its "very good pastoral care" and "very good links with the local community", as the school does its utmost to meet the needs of a varied intake. That includes 28 traveller children, of whom about 20 are regular attenders. "We're a proper comprehensive school," says Mike Rees, assistant head for pupils, "with slightly more at the top end than the bottom."
Fifty-seven per cent of 16-year-olds gained five high-grade GCSE passes this year. The figure has been as high as 64 per cent. Most 14 to 16-year-olds take GNVQs.
As part of the school's inclusive approach, Mr Rees visits the traveller site with an education welfare officer once a month. The school tries to work with these families to keep the children in school at key stage 4: one girl now in Year 11 would be the first to go right through.
In addition to the travellers, the school has a significant minority of pupils who need extra support to keep them engaged: those from socially deprived areas (14-15 per cent on free school meals), those with only level 3 scores on entry, those with special needs. "For some children, the national curriculum is inappropriate because it doesn't engage them," says Peter Phillips, the head.
Bethan Harris is one of two youth workers based at the school who run projects to keep the disaffected, and potentially disaffected, on track.
She sees children at the school's feeder primaries picked out by heads as likely to need extra help with the move to secondary - looked-after children, or those with poor attainment or behaviour. They visit the school once a week in their final term at primary and weekly meetings may continue through their first year.
New arrivals at the school may also be referred to the Getting Connected scheme, where pupils meet a youth worker at least once a week to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Higher up, Year 10 pupils can choose the XL project, an option where they work on communication and organisational skills for five hours a fortnight.
"Many boys drop out in Year 9," says Ms Harris. "So we try to get them placements one to two days a week, such as painting and decorating in schools, or gardening, and combine that with taking core subjects and giving them support through Getting Connected or XL."
"We take 240 pupils a year, how can one menu fit them all? It can't," says Bill Price, head of the upper school. "We take them into the community, where they see other codes of behaviour and we see significant changes in attitude when they come back."
"We have fewer behaviour problems at key stage 4 than we did when forcing kids to sit in front of a teacher in Year 10 learning something they didn't want to know," adds Clive Jackson, deputy head.