Transferring from a small, rural primary to a large secondary can be daunting for pupils. Biddy Passmore sees how joint lessons in science and other subjects can make it less stressful
How far does an energetic woodlouse move in 20 seconds? That is the kind of question to which 10-year-olds like to find the answer, especially if they are in a proper, grown-up lab in a secondary school and there's a race on.
There are squeals of excitement as the woodlice start to move across their Petri dishes. Colouring in the results on a bar chart is also part of the fun.
Once a fortnight, the 55 Year 6 pupils from nine schools in the villages around Tregaron gather at the "big school", Ysgol Uchwradd Tregaron, for a day of secondary fare. They study Welsh, English, French, science and PE, in a scheme designed to demystify such a large instiution and ease the transition from primary to secondary school.
There's a rumour that lessons with Tregaron's head of science, Chris Greenfield, are the biggest hit. No wonder. Mr Greenfield has a boyish appearance and enthusiasm - and access to the kind of facilities that no primary, let alone a small village school, can offer.
There are many advantages to the scheme beyond getting the children used to a larger environment and raising their ambitions. They relish meeting and forming friendships with each other, for a start. In schools ranging in size from 12 to 80 pupils, they may normally meet only a handful of pupils of their own age.
And games become a possibility when there are enough children together to form a football team - and a pitch to play on. One boy at a tiny school had no fellow to play football with until this scheme started.
"Children from village primaries can be quite demure," comments Terwyn Tomos, a local education adviser. "They may not talk much. But they communicate much better once they've been here - they're re-energised."
Both primary and secondary teachers learn from the scheme too. Three primary teachers, working on a rota system, accompany the children and team-teach the three classes with secondary teachers.
The most telling evidence of the scheme's success will come this autumn, when the first group of children moves up to Tregaron secondary school. But already there are clear signs of improvement.
In another move to ease the transfer from primary to secondary stages, heads of department from Tregaron visit local primaries to agree what is expected in terms of knowledge and skills by the time they start Year 7.
Working groups of primary and secondary teachers have prepared schemes of work and curriculum plans for each subject area.
Action by Ceredigion to smooth the transfer of pupils began in earnest in 2001, when the Welsh Assembly offered specific funding to raise standards at key stage 3.
The county reckoned the answer lay in getting the transition right and thus avoiding the dip in performance that often follows pupils' arrival in secondary school.
In Cardigan, the "family" of schools has opted for a further experiment. A group of weaker pupils, identified by their primary teachers as likely to benefit from continuity in teaching pattern, is being taught in the secondary school in the style of a primary class. They spend fairly long periods every day in one classroom with a small team of teachers teaching them and nearly all their subjects deal with one theme chosen for each term.
Around Aberystwyth, the emphasis is on curriculum packages called "bridging units". The idea is that children in all the local feeder primaries work on the same units after they have finished their Sats tests, stopping the end-of-year slump and ensuring that they all arrive at secondary school together having done some work in common.
Working parties have drawn up units in Welsh, Welsh as a second language, science and English. The English unit - based on a collection of short stories called The Hare, by Catherine Fisher - has now been adopted by every other area within the local authority.
"We have a vast number (23) of feeder primaries," says Wendy Crockett, deputy head of Penglais, one of the two secondaries in the town, "and pupils come with very different experiences, from a one-teacher school to a large primary with more than 300 pupils.
"There can be a very big gap between the two worlds. To get to (secondary) school and find you've been doing the same work as other children creates an immediate bond."