A mentor scheme which pairs Year 7 pupils with sixth-formers has been a surprise success. Mike Lewis reports.
A ground-breaking basic skills project for Year 7 pupils, in which older children act as reading mentors or "buddies", has yielded remarkable results, according to staff.
Teachers at Pembroke school, where sixth-formers and Y10 pupils help 11 and 12-year-olds struggling with reading, spelling and writing, say that behavioural problems have decreased dramatically and attendance figures have shot up since the scheme was launched last year. And it has just won a Welsh Secondary Schools Association award.
The fresh-faced tutors themselves say that their newly-created roles have not only enhanced their own self-worth but also provided a valuable bridge towards better relations between pupils and staff.
Dean Davies, a Y10 reading mentor, said: "The kids can relate to us more rather than having a teacher on their backs. It's good to know that our input will help them in the long run."
In 2003 the school started to extend the literacy hour, more commonly found in primary classrooms, into lessons for targeted Y7 groups.
To do this they combined humanities subjects - geography, history and RE - into one lesson, allowing more time for basic maths and English lessons under the guidance of the mentors and buddies, said assistant headteacher Chris Evans.
"We asked the buddies if they wished to volunteer, which means they respond well because it's something they want to do," he said. "They receive basic training in accelerated literacy reading."
"It's nice to work on a one-to-one basis," said sixth-former Rosie McBride.
"It's satisfying to see the kids improve, watch their confidence develop and gradually even build a friendship. We wield no authority like teachers so the kids see us as one of them."
The buddies, who are attached to tutor groups, tackle issues such as bullying and other concerns that Y7 pupils may have.
Mr Evans said the results had been startling. "We improved their overall reading age to a point where they were 10 months ahead within five to six months.
"Their self-esteem has improved and they now have a 94 per cent attendance record, yet these are the kids we would normally expect to be among the most disaffected in the school.
"These improvements have been achieved on just one extra hour a day focusing on literacy and numeracy - everything else they do is on the mainstream curriculum."
He added: "There are some pros and cons. When some pairings do not work as well as we would like we can always switch partners, but when it does work it works really well, although we are still very much in the learning stage."
Inevitably such a bold initiative has come at a price. The Basic Skills Agency provided some funding, but the bulk of the pound;50,000 costs for the project, now being extended into its second year, came from the school's own budget. "It is expensive but we feel that it is money well spent," said Mr Evans.
And reading mentor Matthew Mead feels the social side of the experiment cannot be over-emphasised. "How many Y7 pupils would even have the confidence to speak to a sixth-former?" he said.
"Normally we are people they just pass in the corridors.
"This gives them, as well as us, the opportunity to relate to people of different ages."