Name: Chestnu Grove School, Balham, South London
School type: Visual arts specialists college
Proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals: 35 per cent
Results: 2000 - 22 per cent of pupils gained five or more A - C grades
2004 - 41 per cent gained five or more A - C grades
An arts college offers incoming pupils an online preview of classes, peers and possibilities. Beth Noakes reports
Year 7 pupils may well arrive for their first day at Chestnut Grove school in a state of excitement, clutching folders of work they have completed in the holidays.
The comprehensive in Balham, south London, is the first to set up an interactive transition website for incoming pupils.
"There's such a big gap between children knowing they've got a place here and actually coming to the school," says headteacher Margaret Peacock.
"This bridges the gap in an exciting way.'
Year 6 pupils in feeder primary schools - and Chestnut Grove has around 50 - are encouraged to visit the website to find out more about the school, meet some of the pupils and sample some of the subjects they will be studying next year.
The site, funded through the two-year key stage 3 project, is one tool to combat the dip in attainment suffered by so many students in their early years at secondary school. It was the idea of Katherine Cumberbatch, assistant head and head of English.
"It was only launched last June," she says, "but some pupils arrived in September with folders full of work from the site. They were really excited about it. We wanted them to have a feeling for Chestnut Grove, that we are an arts college and a creative school, and it seems to have worked."
The site includes clips of present pupils talking about the school, photos of different subjects from woodwork to table-tennis, and a presentation on how the school put the website together.
Pupils can email staff to tell them what they like and what they find difficult about maths and English, whether they play a musical instrument and how they feel about the prospect of going to secondary school. They can play a Space Invader-type maths game, do some puzzles and write about their favourite author.
The maths department is already using some of the data produced by the site in lessons.
"In the first term we will present the results of what the Year 6s told us in their survey, as different types of diagrams," says Jackie Lomas, head of maths. "Then we will redo the survey at the end of the year and use the data again. I wanted students to be able to bring something from primary to secondary school, and it had to be fun. That's why we included Space Invader-type games, and some puzzle-based questions too. We've had lots of positive feedback."
The music department has used the information on what instruments pupils play to do some forward planning of instrumental lessons, and the English department has found out what books and authors children enjoy. It has also helped the school to build up a picture of its incoming pupils.
Original ideas for the site came from Year 7 pupils, some of whom appear on the site's opening page.
"My Year 7s loved designing a site for Year 6s," says Ms Lomas, "and they love being on the website. I'd definitely get the children involved. You can ask them what they would find useful in the first half term at new school."
On the technical side, the site was put together by professional web designers, who have trained school IT technicians to update photos and worksheets.
"I would really recommend using professionals," says Ms Cumberbatch. "We would never have had the time they took to produce designs, or the expertise. We had fixed deadlines, and we met them all. And where I would probably have used Shakespeare as a theme for the English section, for example, they came up with polar bears, which are much more exciting."
The Chestnut Grove site will soon expand to include history and art, but the first development is a virtual tour of the school. Pupils will soon be able to click on different areas of the school plan and see inside the rooms.
"They will be able to do a treasure hunt around the classrooms, answering questions such as naming the king featured on a display," says Ms Cumberbatch. "The interactivity is very important for children of this age.
They need to have things to do, not just text to read."
Staff have estimated that around 40 per cent of incoming pupils used the site last year. Probably half do not have access to the internet at home, but Chestnut Grove has strong connections with Balham library, and librarians as well as primary school teachers are ready to help children access the site. The school is also producing a CD-Rom version of the website, which will be sent out in the prospectus and given to all new students.
"It's a very important recruitment tool as well as a transition aid," says Ms Peacock. "With the best will in the world, we can't get into all of our 50 feeder primary schools, so it's a particularly important link with the ones who may send only one or two children. It keeps them informed, and helps the children to feel they're getting to know the school before they come."
Feedback from parents and from the local community has been good, with people getting in touch to say how impressed they are.
"Everyone is always looking to improve links with primary schools," says Ms Peacock. "We're a visual arts specialist school, and this is a way of encapsulating the creativity of Chestnut Grove in a way that is difficult to capture otherwise. Most of the information we put out is for parents, but this is specially for the children."