Ebbw Vale Comprehensive in Blaenau Gwent serves several deprived catchment areas where pupils lack stability in their home lives and often struggle with the transition from a structured primary setting to a secondary.
In 2005, teachers were growing concerned with a worsening "learning dip", the well-documented drop in academic achievement and behaviour, among a significant proportion of Year 7 pupils.
Deputy head Georgina Davidson said: "The transition to a secondary can be disconcerting for some. They can become quite disorientated by the wide variety of teachers, teaching environments and new subjects they encounter, and it has a knock-on effect on their learning."
The project builds on the special relationship built up between young children and their primary teacher at key stage 2 while introducing them to KS3 subjects.
Instead of starting comprehensive with an overwhelming array of new lessons, the entire Year 7 cohort is split into four groups, each with a dedicated tutor who takes a third of their lessons, in English and humanities.
Pupils are seated in groups similar to those in primary classrooms, often with friends from their previous schools.
Stability is key. Mrs Davidson said: "Every single day of the week those pupils are spending time with somebody who knows them inside out. It builds their confidence and then they are ready to hit the ground running in Year 8."
But for those who aren't quite ready, the project has been extended into Years 8 and 9 with small cohorts of pupils who it is felt would benefit from the extra attention and stability.
Tips from the scheme
- Find staff who are willing to retrain, adapt and teach out of their comfort zone. They will also have to be willing to deal with more social, emotional and behavioural issues.
- Have dedicated classrooms set aside as a "base", and make them as friendly and familiar to Year 7 pupils as possible to ease the transition process.
- Build close relationships with your feeder primaries. Have their Year 5 and 6 pupils visit your school and send your specialist staff to them on a regular basis.
Evidence that it works?
Welsh inspectorate Estyn said the project was "outstanding". Its 2008 report said: "This approach ... is successful in helping pupils settle into their new school and develop a range of critical skills to support the rest of the curriculum."
This year Ebbw Vale gained its best-ever GCSE results from the first cohort to join through the project, with 62 per cent gaining five A*-C grades, a 20 percentage-point increase on last year. Attendance and behaviour has also improved.
Approach: Using a primary-style class structure in secondary to improve transition
Leaders: Georgina Davidson, head of English, and deputy head Sian Barrett, Year 7 pastoral team leader
Name: Ebbw Vale Comprehensive
Location: Blaenau Gwent, Wales
Number of pupils: 650
Age range: 11 to 18
Intake: The school covers many socially deprived areas with above-average unemployment. Twenty-two per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds are entitled to free school meals. Pupils are overwhelmingly white British, and none speak Welsh as a first language
Ofsted overall rating: Good (2008).