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Countdown to university

This summer almost 800 teenagers from the west of Scotland are getting up every day at 7am to spend two weeks of their holidays at a summer school.

But this is no ordinary summer school. At the Summer Academy @Strathclyde, young people learn how to make slime that would not look out of place on a Ghostbusters film set, are doing Countdown-style conundrums Carol Vorderman style and producing a web page to promote Scotland.

The effect on exam performance has been startling. The most recent evaluation, for 2002, showed that the results of 70 per cent of those taking part were better than expected. "Learning without realising it" is how Bob Munro, associate director, describes the initiative.

The Summer Academy was set up in 1999 as a joint initiative between Strathclyde University and a number of west of Scotland authorities. It is aimed at pupils in their third year of secondary education who have the potential to go on to further or higher education but who require extra support and motivation.

Young people who are capable of achieving Credit level Standard grades and who would benefit from being in "a positive learning environment" are selected by their school to take part in one of the two-week courses run over an eight-week period from June 28 until August 20. This year more than 130 secondary schools from 13 authorities are taking part.

The academy's aim is to develop skills, confidence and the desire to learn, as well as giving students a taste of university life. The curriculum includes three components - academic, recreation and study support. And there are unusual items on the timetable such as an afternoon of Highland games, a day entitled "Whodunit?" and the Crystal Maze.

The academic programme begins with 15-minute micro-challenges such as team building and progresses to two-hour mini-challenges which include four sessions called numbers count, forensic solutions, futuristic fruit (students have to design and produce packaging for fruit), and Scotland for sale (promoting Scotland abroad).

Then come the maxi-challenges, which last half a day. These include writing about a subject on which students feel strongly and the John Anderson experience which gives students the chance to explore the university campus.

The final challenge, lasting two and a half days, is the mega-challenge which involves taking on projects such as creating a futuristic fashion show, working as archaeologists and organising the graduation show.

At the end of each day time is allocated for study skills. There are also regular drop-in sessions, careers advice and time to practise or learn a recreation skill such as drumming, kickboxing, or cheerleading.

"They are learning a lot but we want them to learn in an enjoyable context," Mr Munro says. "The bottom line is that it's their holiday time, but we strike a nice balance between having fun and the academic side of things."

Natalie McCrossan, one of the mentors who lead the activities, agrees.

"There is a great atmosphere here and it's good fun. The relationship with the students is not like being their teacher or parent; it's like being one of their peers."

The mentors, all university students, aim to impart a positive message. Ms McCrossan, a senior mentor who is taking part for a fourth consecutive year, say: "It's the whole idea of learning in context. They learn to apply things they have learnt in school but in a different environment.

"For a lot of people it is also a chance to meet people who go to university. Many of the pupils are from schools where nobody has gone to university, so they get the chance to talk to us and to find out what it is like."

Every summer is different. "We are constantly trying to make it better," Mr Munro says. "We work with teachers to develop the programme and there is at least one teacher with us every week who helps us to improve, and we get feedback from mentors and former students."

Much emphasis goes on IT skills. A presentation that would once have included a handmade poster, for example, now use a PowerPoint display.

The academy is careful to track student progress. Many of last year's group have improved from predicted Standard grades at levels 3 and 4 to 1 and 2, Mr Munro reports. "We do find their results are much better than anticipated - the numbers getting five Standard grades at levels 1 and 2 is 70 per cent, compared to the average which is about 30 per cent."

He adds: "It's very difficult to claim that two weeks can make such a staggering difference. But I can say with my hand on my heart that students go away more motivated, and confidence and self-esteem are what a lot of the kids take away with them."

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