Willows high used to be a sink school. Now it's an example to others of what can be achieved
Well, strike me dead," exclaims Mal Davies with mock ama* ement. The head of Willows high school is underwhelmed by a recent study showing that children from the wealthiest areas are six times more likely to go on to higher education than children from the poorest, Mr Davies knows all about poverty and low aspirations. Now in his 11th year as head of an 11-16 school in one of the most deprived parts of Cardiff - the SplottTremorfa area - he knows how hard it can be to raise parents'
and pupils' sights.
But, in partnership with nearby primary schools and the local education authority, he and his staff are making headway. As pioneers of Cardiff's out-of-hours learning strategy, they have shown what a difference extra study support and supervised activities can make.
Eight years ago only 6 per cent of pupils at Willows got five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. Today the figure is just under 29 per cent. Just as important, parents have started to take part in courses and activities and more and more pupils plan to stay in education when they leave.
"This programme is compensating for what parents in the north of the city expect," says Mr Davies, who also chairs the General Teaching Council for Wales in his spare moments. "We're selling the idea of further and higher education for them."
The Willows community learning centre, which occupies one end of the school, is the biggest and most advanced in Cardiff. It was among the first 10 set up by the authority in the southern high schools, where disadvantage is greatest, although there are now centres in the leafy north as well.
Together,they cost the schools service pound;300,000 a year.
"We're showing pupils that learning is about more than just sitting in class," says Mr Davies. "At the learning centre they learn study skills, how to revise, how to programme their coursework - and they have fun as well."
It all started about eight years ago, with Mr Davies taking "opinion-makers" among the senior pupils on a residential study weekend at the National Sports Centre. They declared it "safe" (Cardiff for "cool") to study and the out-of-hours programme started to develop.
Next came the move to re-engage parents with education. Few Willows parents have any experience of education beyond school - and school was bad enough.
Local primary heads managed to nobble those with older children and persuade them to turn up, the local tertiary college provided laptops, the Willows had a spare room and Cardiff's community education service could lend a tutor. Thus an information technology course for parents was born at next to no cost.
Now parents learn with pupils on evening courses in IT and cookery and take part in weekend family learning days. Their children, meanwhile, have a bewildering array of activities to choose from.
There are supervised sessions in the school library every lunchtime and for an hour after school - during which pupils may eat, as long as they clear away properly afterwards.
Other after-school activities range from rugby for boys and football for girls, through drama and choir, to computer, maths and Warhammer clubs.
Twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, there is a two-hour homework club.
Pupils earn points for study sessions: one point for every 30-minute session and extra points for Saturday and holiday sessions. They tot up to earn rewards in the form of trips to London or to a show or, for the keenest attenders, a residential activity weekend in the summer.
"We have seen numbers of pupils who attend study support rise significantly since the introduction of the reward scheme," says the school.
A survey last year found 95 per cent of pupils took part in one activity and 57 per cent did five or more.
"Not bad," Mr Davies remarks, "for a school struggling to get to 85 per cent attendance."