Andrew Mourant visits a school where 14-year-olds help newcomers to cope
Fear of ridicule, floundering around a huge campus and worrying about bullies: such are the ordeals facing Year 7 pupils arriving at comprehensive school. Many do not know where to turn for help.
At Ralph Allen School, a mixed comprehensive in Bath with 970 pupils, the problem is being addressed in a novel way. From the beginning of the Easter term, more than 40 pupils in year 10 - who might be expected to look down upon small fry - will instead act as friends and support to junior pupils.
The "buddy system" 10:7 Project is being backed by a Pounds 3,000 grant from the charity Human Scale Education, which wants to find ways of working in smaller groups that can help to improve learning in comprehensives. The Ralph Allen scheme is one of four that HSE has backed with money from charitable trusts.
Most year 10 pupils at Ralph Allen retain vivid memories of life in year 7. "It was quite scary - the place was so big and I didn't know anyone," Nik James, 14, recalled. "I was worried about being laughed at - I know how they feel," said Amy Skuse, 15.
Emily Golledge, also 15, was haunted by images from Grange Hill and feared being bullied. "I want to teach when I get older and think this project will give some skills I need," she said.
All volunteers underwent a training session with Bath and North-East Somerset's specialist teacher in emotional and behavioural difficulties, David Nelson: a crash course in learning how to listen, respond to, and empathise with disorientated young pupils.
Year 10s are not expected to solve serious problems. Their brief is to share ideas, exchange views, identify good and bad news, express thoughts and feelings, help year 7s to complete a set task and encourage good work. Bullying, victimisation and other bad behaviour will still be dealt with by teachers.
The aim is to raise the self-esteem of all involved. Each volunteer - around a third are boys - will look after four Year 7s. Ralph Allen's head of learning support, Sue Lewis, said that Year 10s, experiencing their first year of upper school, may face some of the same problems as the youngest pupils.
As Christmas term was ending, new pupils at Ralph Allen had undergone the usual gamut of experiences: one girl had been bullied, although all pupils sign an anti-bullying charter; one boy sometimes had problems understanding teachers; and another felt intimidated by older boys. All welcomed the potential support offered by the 10:7 project.
"We have had a wide range of year 10s coming forward, some with learning difficulties. We will try to match up the two year groups in the best way, " said Year 7 head Sue Roles.
Until this year, Human Scale Education's work was largely confined to supporting parents who run their own small schools, and seeking government funding. "In large schools, teachers need to find solutions to their own problems," said HSE national co-ordinator Fiona Carnie. "Diktats handed down from on high don't work."
Following a seminar HSE organised in December 1995 on why large schools fail in America, and the lessons learned from their efforts to improve matters, the charity has, besides backing the Ralph Allen scheme, made grants to three other projects.
At the Cave School, Clapham, south London, HSE is supporting an off-site unit for children with behavioural and emotional problems, and encouraging close co-operation with parents.
In Norwood School, a girls' school in south London, where most pupils come from ethnic minorities, a project concentrating on low achievers, who will be making videos for use throughout the school, has been supported by HSE. The idea is to build up self-esteem through the expressive arts.
The charity has also given money to the James Gillespie School, Edinburgh, will fund a study of Year 8 pupils, teachers, senior management and parents, asking what they like and dislike about education. The findings will be used as a basis to improve learning.
All the projects will be monitored, and HSE plans to publish its findings.
"They could become models and be adapted elsewhere," said Fiona Carnie. "The idea is to encourage innovation but this is difficult for teachers in the current climate. They need the opportunity to try out ideas. We feel this is a more realistic and workable way of bringing about change."