Never mind the Year 2000 virus...it's the Year 8 bug that teachers really need to tackle. Research shows that this is the year when pupils are most likely to lose their confidence and enthusiasm. Martin Whittaker visits one school that has taken steps to remember the 'forgotten year'
Year 8 boys at Lord Williams's School can't wait for lunchtime. As the bell goes, they pelt down the corridor to a central area where makeshift wooden barriers go down on the floor, turning it into a mini Brands Hatch. Then out come the radio-controlled cars.
The remote-control car club - mainly boy members, though there is a girls' team - takes this very seriously. They build the cars from kits, some sponsored by Leyland Daf. There's a league table, and with up to 40 spectators charged 10p each, prize money is at stake.
Teacher Owain Johns, who runs the club, believes the Year 8s get a lot out of this. Apart from having fun, to win races they have to look at whose car is going faster and why. "If they're methodical and sit down and work it all out properly, they'll get results. And if they can use that approach in other subjects, then that's a bonus.
"There are a few pupils who perhaps aren't great at sport, or who aren't achieving in other subjects, who get some sense of achievement from this. One kid raced last week for the first time and all his form were cheering him on. Afterwards, he was walking with his head held high."
The car club is just part of the school's Active 8 programme, which aims to boost the "forgotten Year 8s". Head of Year Chris Daplyn devised the scheme with her deputy, Dr Roger Higton. "We wanted to give children a sense of belonging and direction in a year that often gets overlooked," she says. "Year 7 are still bubbly from primary, and Year 9 are looking ahead to GCSE options and have national assessment tests and other things going on. But Year 8s don't have a specific focus, so we thought it would be nice to give them that."
The scheme at Lord Wil-liams's, a large comprehensive in Thame, Oxfordshire, has been running since last September. All 320 Year 8s keep a Record of Achievement booklet to chart their own progress. This is split into sections covering service to the community, visits, outdoor pursuits, helping with charity and hobbies. It also gives academic targets and monitors attendance, punctuality and behaviour.
Parents meet regularly to talk about how they can help with Active 8, and there's plenty of liaison with the local community. At the end of the year there are bronze, silver, gold and distinction awards for the children.
The moment you walk through the school's main entrance, Year 8 children are in evidence. Every day a different Year 8 pupil sits at reception to greet visitors. On parents' evenings, Year 8s hand out the coffee and biscuits.
The children talk with pride about their community projects and charity work. Matthew Lamb, 13, collected 10,000 old Christmas cards for recycling by the Woodland Trust; Jennifer Green, 13, did some waitressing for the Lions Club; Chloe Evans, 12, helped raise pound;20 for the Children's Society by washing cars; and Bob Gallagher, 13, did a 35-mile sponsored cycle ride for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Existing school events, like the annual camp for Year 8s, sport, dance and drama, have all been brought into Active 8. In one of the school's two dance studios, some Year 8 girls go through the paces of their dance routine, which they are putting together for a performance at Thame Sport and Arts Centre.
Each year taking part was asked to base their dance on a different artist. Year 8 chose the painter Edvard Munch (most famous for "The Scream"), for which they have made their own masks. "The girls have worked really hard at this. It will go down in their Active 8 Record of Achievement," says Daplyn.
Lord Williams's takes autistic children from throughout the county, and every lunchtime a group of Year 8 girls keep the children company. Neil Tregear, who runs the unit, says: "It's been an eye opener for them, coming over and having lunch with our kids. The girls have been wonderful."
There are now plans for a club, run by Year 8, involving games with the autistic students. Daplyn believes the benefits of this kind of integration go both ways. "It's helping my Year 8s understand that there are children and people like this out there. It's extending them beyond the curriculum and making them less selfish.
"Also, organising things like charity work, fund-raising and clubs is going to help in their work. And hopefully, by the time they get to Year 11, they've got lots of experience which they can put down on letters of application and college references."
Headteacher Pat O'Shea says it will take time for the effects of Active 8 to filter through, but insists that pupils are benefiting already. "We're seeing a much stronger sense of identity and purpose in the year group. They know their targets, so they have a pride in their record books. There is a buzz about the place, a sense of things going on."
The school's work with Year 8 follows research by Professor Jean Rudduck of Homerton College, Cambridge. With colleagues Julia Flutter and Chris Doddington, she has identified this as the year when the seeds of disaffection are sown and children can drift away from learning. They found that after the initial settling in of Year 7, Year 8 was perceived by some pupils as "just an in-between year" or a "year when nothing happens".
They also found that some heads put their best teachers with exam groups or Year 7 pupils but gave little attention to the teaching needs of Year 8.
"Year 8 may be the pivotal year when pupils need to be helped to think and act strategically in relation to their learning," the researches argue, "and to understand how a commitment to learning now can enhance life chances."
Rudduck advocates schemes like the one at Lord Williams's School, and her report, Sustaining Pupils' Commitment to Learning: The Challenge of Year 8, cites other examples of good practice. Highfield School in Hertfordshire, for example, came up with an evening event to celebrate the achievements of Year 8; at St Guthlac's School in Crowland, Lincolnshire, Year 8 portfolios were introduced and pupils invited to select pieces of their best work; and Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School instituted a mentoring scheme for Year 8s. "What matters is the principle behind these initiatives," says Rudduck. "It is important that schools recognise there is a dip in motivation and potentially in achievement as well, and try to make Year 8 special in some way."
The Department for Education and Employment is to follow Rudduck's work through by funding an intervention project for education authorities and schools. A spokesman says: "It will offer LEAs different degrees of support and intervention. And they will be able to adopt the strategies that Jean Rudduck has identified to different degrees and see what works. We'll be tendering in a couple of months and that project will last for two years."
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is also considering non-statutory tests for Year 8.
Rudduck says the word about Year 8 is beginning to spread: "Schools are beginning to recognise the problem."
For further information and copies of 'Sustaining Pupils' Commitment to Learning: The Challenge of Year 8', contact Professor Jean Rudduck, Homerton College, Cambridge CB2 2PH