Looks aren't enough
The leadership team at Bettws High realised that even a pound;28m rebuild wouldn't turn the school around, so they organised a new approach to learning.
When inspectors classed Bettws High School as needing "significant improvement" in 2007, headteacher Gary Schlick knew nothing short of a radical overhaul would do.
In the 2006-07 academic year, less than a third of pupils had gained five top grades at GCSE, attendance had dropped to 88 per cent and fixed-term exclusions had rocketed to more than 1,000 days among the 1,173 pupils.
On top of that, the Newport school for 11 to 18-year-olds was increasingly losing potential pupils to its rivals. That year, 90 youngsters from feeder primaries chose to attend schools outside the catchment area rather than go to Bettws.
Although a move to a new pound;28 million building was less than two years off, Mr Schlick and his deputy, Karyn Keane, decided immediate change was needed if they were to turn the school around.
So the traditional timetable was torn up. In September 2008 a completely redesigned system was introduced: there was a two-year key stage 3 with a thematic curriculum that emphasised skills; Year 7 tutor groups were set up, with pupils spending 29 hours of the 50-hour two-week timetable with one teacher, closer to the primary school pattern.
"We were really keen to improve the staff-student relationship," said Mr Schlick, "how much staff knew about their students and how much time they spent with them."
The new system required a dramatic change in teaching practices, but Mr Schlick said his excited staff were only too keen to adapt.
"We have seen a change in pedagogy in a very positive way," he said. "There are no more `talk and chalk' lessons. That may be the style of some teachers, but you can't do that for five hours in a day. You have to develop new strategies for working with the students."
Rather than being subject driven, the new skills-led curriculum aimed to transform pupils into independent learners.
"We aren't abandoning the content that needs to be covered," said Mr Schlick. "But at the same time we aren't cramming the kids with loads of content. Are we looking for students who can rattle off facts and figures, or do we want confident learners, able to research and investigate by themselves?"
Pupils arriving from primary school were also better looked after: the new Year 7 tutors made regular visits to feeder primaries to get to know them before they arrived, and a large classroom was transformed into a Year 7 hall to allow daily assemblies for the first time which, according to Ms Keane, has helped instil a positive ethos and a sense of community among the pupils.
But the biggest hurdle to overcome was the low expectations of pupils approaching their GCSEs. Ms Keane said some pupils and even their parents had almost resigned themselves to getting poor grades, believing there was a "glass ceiling" to their achievements.
Mr Schlick added: "Low expectations are the nub of under-performance, especially in deprived communities like Bettws. I think sometimes schools doom kids to failure. We know a lot of students embarking on a two-year course aren't going to pass, but we allow them to carry on in the second year and they achieve what we expect them to. We wanted to overcome some of these issues."
Teachers at Bettws asked a group of low-achieving Year 11s where it had gone wrong for them. They said there was too much work, revision and coursework and too many exams. Many middle-ability boys said they had given up completely because they felt overwhelmed.
The school's solution was to extend KS4 study over three years: pupils chose their options at the end of Year 8 before starting the core subjects in Year 9. Pupils are given the choice of taking two GCSE courses taught over five lessons per week, with an exam at the end of the year, or one vocational course taught over 10 lessons per week, to be completed in a year.
"Giving students more time for courses has increased their motivation, enabled better monitoring, and allowed them to focus on fewer subjects for more concentrated periods of time," said Ms Keane.
To complement the KS4 curriculum changes, pastoral care was improved through the introduction of tutor groups and a house system. The maximum for each tutor group is 18, six from each year, with a head tutor and co- tutor to focus on mentoring them and developing a sense of belonging.
The changes have had a massive impact on the school. Attendance has improved, the number of fixed-term exclusions has been slashed by almost two-thirds, and 43 per cent of students passed five top-grade GCSEs last year - up 13 percentage points.
In February, Estyn reinspected Bettws and said it was no longer in need of significant improvement. Its report, published this month, says the senior management team is "working very energetically and effectively" to improve the school, thanks to strong support from staff, governors and the local authority.
What is even more remarkable is that so much was achieved without the school spending a huge amount.
Only pound;20,000 was laid out on changes to the Year 7 building block, including new furniture and equipment, and a further pound;10,000 was invested in staff training.
Ms Keane said: "It took courage to make so many significant changes at once, but with the support of staff, students and parents, and a shared desire for change and improvement, we have made a huge difference to the school."
As staff prepare to move into their purpose-built school in October - complete with a new name, Newport High School, and a new uniform - they will take the redesigned system with them and expect results to continue to improve.