Switch to secondary that holds no fear
The different culture is often blamed for low achievement, poor attendance and bad behaviour. But, as Darren Evans found, the Welsh-medium sector has learnt some valuable lessons about transition planning.
Headteacher Ellis Griffiths reckons he can count on one hand the number of serious issues he has had with his current Year 7s.
In the past nine years, he and his staff at Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw, a Welsh- medium secondary in the south Wales valley town of Pontypool, have worked hard to make sure pupils start at the school feeling "happy, safe and secure".
With six feeder primaries in four local authorities, detailed and effective transition planning was born out of necessity.
Although many schools now have similar plans in place, Gwynllyw's has been embedded for many years and is held up as a model of good practice.
Despite legal obligations for primary and secondary schools in Wales to draw up joint transition plans, there are still concerns that the process varies too much between local authorities, and even between individual schools.
Last year's groundbreaking National Behaviour and Attendance Review said schools need more flexible and joined-up transition arrangements between Years 6 and 7. It said some pupils have trouble fitting into secondary school, especially those who have poor histories of attendance and behaviour.
One suggestion was to keep the family- and pupil-friendly atmosphere of primaries through to the early secondary years.
This is something Mr Griffiths thinks he has achieved at the 860-pupil Gwynllyw.
"The more we can work with the primaries, there's a lot of very good lessons we can learn. We invest a tremendous amount of time in this process; we feel it's critical."
The school aims to deal with pupils' problems before they start Year 7, so the rest is plain sailing.
Helen Rogers, the transition co-ordinator takes time to get to know pupils in their primary schools before they move to Gwynllyw. Last year she knew the names of all 170 pupils before they arrived.
Mr Griffiths and Ms Rogers have built up strong relationships with the feeder primaries, meeting their headteachers and other school staff regularly to discuss each pupil's individual needs, as well as getting to know parents.
Staff learn who pupils are friendly with and who they should avoid placing together.
Gwynllyw also hosts an annual sports day involving pupils from the six schools.
Mr Griffiths says: "In terms of pastoral care, we have got it more or less where we want it. In the last three years, we have increasingly focused on the curriculum."
So teachers from Gwynllyw observe lessons in the primary schools and vice- versa, and core subject leaders hold regular meetings to make sure work is not being repeated.
The joint curriculum includes bridging units, in which a pupil may start a piece of work in Year 6 and then finish it in Year 7.
Ms Rogers says: "It's a lot of preparation work. But the pupils are very happy and they start to progress."
The whole process is helped along by Gwynllyw's Year 11 pupils, who run a "buddy system" to ease new arrivals into Year 7. They offer support with pastoral needs, and educationally by giving literacy and numeracy booster lessons.
Although Gwynllyw's transition planning process is driven by a desire to improve Welsh language provision, Ms Rogers says other schools could easily adopt the same ethos.
"They need to identify what their priorities are, look at where they are, where they want to be and then really work in partnership with the primaries," she says.
"The success criteria are simple - it's the happiness of children in Year 7. Things are much easier for us now because the starting block is there."
But Mr Griffiths wants his school's transition process to improve even further, and is planning to focus on improving boys' literacy and overall achievement.
Last month, the Assembly government launched its action plan in response to the attendance review recommendations, in which it urged schools to collaborate and use good practice to improve and update their transition plans.
The government will also commission two reports on school transition planning from Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate.