A star school's success is built on the partnerships it has built, writes David Simmonds
Talk to headteacher John Rawlings about his school and it won't be long before you hear the word partnership. And that may be the key concept in the transformation of Lliswerry high school, in one of Newport's more socially and economically deprived areas, into what Professor David Reynolds, a member of the Government's value-added advisory group, recently described as "one of the stars who shine out from the rest".
Over five years - despite nearly 30 per cent of its pupils qualifying for free school meals, a barometer of deprivation usually linked with poor performance -the number of pupils gaining five top-grade GCSEs has risen from 29 to 48 per cent.
"We also put a lot of value on our five A to G statistics, which put us in the top quartile of similar schools," says Mr Rawlings. "That helps explain our success: every student does at least some GCSEs. We were doing too many other qualifications, so what should have been middle groups perceived themselves to be the bottom - and performed down to expectations."
He believes that the school's move away from mixed-ability teaching has had positive results. "It's a question of pushing from the lowest groups up, so E becomes D, D becomes C, and so on."
The partnership principle begins in the primary schools: Lliswerry staff teach, observe and help to ease that sometimes difficult move into secondary education. That's reinforced in Year 7 by enhancing the role of form tutors, who teach their subject but also have more non-teaching time to follow the class into other lessons to observe and support. Parents, accustomed to dealing with one teacher in primary schools, like it. So do the pupils.
"One of our forms told their tutor 'You're all we need, Miss,' " says Mr Rawlings.
Positive behaviour management, with merit marks and outings for good conduct, keeps about 90 per cent of children on track, says Mr Rawlings.
The remaining 10 per cent demand other strategies, such as individual counselling, mentors outside school and an alternative curriculum - where another partnership is bearing fruit.
"This year there's a new initiative with the alternative curriculum," says Paul Murphy, head of Lliswerry's upper school. "Pupils go to Coleg Gwent for three days to get a GNVQ - some of them are already up to level 2 - and they're back in school for two days to do five GCSEs."
They're the kind of courses that the school would find difficult to run.
"But they're still Lliswerry pupils, and they're still connected to education."
By integrating option choices and timetables, the schoolcollege symbiosis extends post-GCSE - three-quarters of Year 12 attend at least one AS course in the college, allowing the school's 120-strong sixth-form to concentrate on academic subjects. Staff provide very necessary support for those who will be the first of their families to go on to higher education.
Other indicators are positive: attendance has improved from 84 to 90 per cent, the gender gap for good GCSE passes has closed from 20 per cent in favour of the girls to 3 per cent, and the 12 per cent of ethnic minority students integrate and perform well.
Mr Rawlings talks about the "strong and mutually supportive partnership"
with Newport local education authority. And he will tell you about other partnerships - between staff and parents, teachers and support staff, school and community. But there's one that seems to give him most pride.
"Staff want the pupils to do well, and the pupils know that. And the strength is that they won't let each other down."
A bell rings, and as pupils stream out, Mr Rawlings puts on his coat to take his turn supervising a cold and windy yard.
"We've always prided ourselves on being a caring school. We still are - but it's caring about them enough to raise academic achievement, raise expectations so these children realise that they can perform as well as a child anywhere else in Newport, or in the country."