Deprivation has not stopped Valleys' schools. David Simmonds reports
If you want success at 16, start early, act on reliable information and share your knowledge - that is the message from one local authority whose pupils have consistently performed beyond expectations.
"We start at zero, rather than key stage 4," said Kathleen Boyce, head of schools, education, development and inclusion in Neath Port Talbot.
Take-up of free school meals, used as an indication of deprivation, is above the Welsh average in the Valleys' authority: 25 per cent compared to 19 per cent in primary schools, and 19 per cent compared to 16 per cent in secondary. Some schools have even higher levels, with more than 60 per cent of pupils entitled to free meals in one school.
But, taking into account deprivation levels, the number of pupils getting five or more A*-C GCSE grades in 2004 was 9 percentage points higher than predicted, at 55 per cent. In both the two previous years, results were 7 percentage points higher than predicted.
The collection of reliable data is paramount. "Properly used, it means there's no hiding place," said Mrs Boyce.
"We can identify what we need to work on - for example, literacy, which is a big one. We identify strategies for improvement, and we pull all the levers."
That means accessing support from, for example, the Basic Skills Agency and its programmes, and bringing parents on board at a very early stage.
Some schools will send tapes and games home with the child in their book-bag, aimed at helping the parent to become more involved.
And the team-work theme continues across the KS23 transition. Parents of Year 7 pupils will be invited to an open night to share information about how their child is performing, what he or she can achieve, and the best ways to realise that. Parents may be asked to monitor a child's reading diary, or to encourage more advanced reading.
In one initiative, Dwr-y-Felin comprehensive, Neath, has been using cognitive abilities tests (CAT) and working with its feeder primary schools to tackle a perceived area of weakness - independent learning.
"One area where there was significant potential for improvement was thinking and organisational skills," said Dwr-y-Felin headteacher Nigel Stacey.
"We're now developing good practices and buying in resources across the cluster, and releasing primary and secondary staff to work together to prepare materials. Information is shared across the group, there's no competition."
Jane Loft, head of Coedffranc infants, leads a thinking strategies group drawn from primary schools.
"We have two teachers from each school, at least one from a transition year. The group has been been working with education consultant Sharon Ginnes.
"We've been looking at different learning styles, the thinking processes involved in those styles, and how to give young children the opportunities to develop those skills. Now we're moving to an exemplar plan of different lesson plans from reception to Y6, practising those skills across the curriculum."
At Cefn Saeson comprehensive, headteacher Alun Griffiths has used some independent thinking of his own to boost his exam successes, despite some early reservations from the community. He's compressed his school's working day between 8.30am and 2.35pm, and then expanded extra-curricular activities until 4pm.
"We fulfil all our statutory requirements inside those hours. In traditional school days there's a lot of dead time, children hanging around for something to happen, and idle hands get into trouble."
By allowing more time for extra-curricular activities - "and education is also about relationships and opportunities for wider experiences" - the quality of what's on offer has also been improved.
"I used to see our choir, for example, trying to rush their lunch in 20 minutes, then get a 20-minute practice. And I wondered why," said Mr Griffiths.
"By managing time for children and staff better than we have previously, we've had success."
He is confidently looking forward to the school's best-ever exam results for the third year running.
And while he has been rather surprised at the interest shown by other schools in Cefn Saeson's changes, he has been more than happy to talk about them.
"Partnership, the opportunities we have to share, is very important - and that's not just a cliche."
Rhys Williams, spokesman for the National Union of Teachers Cymru, said Neath Port Talbot was a role model in its use of data and particularly how it shared this with teachers - by treating them as professionals and engaging them in a mission to use education to overcome deprivation.