The road that passes St Benedict's RC Primary School, in the Hillfields area of Coventry, is partially blocked by a barrier that allows only pedestrians to pass. It looks like the kind of traffic management structure that you find in most towns these days.
This barrier, though, is not quite so innocent. It was put there when the road outside the school became a rat run for kerb crawlers looking for the prostitutes who stood outside the school illuminated by the security lighting. As if that were not enough, life on the streets here is disfigured by drug dealing, and the inevitable associated knifings and shootings.
"You see what it's like for parents," says Maureen Perry, head of St Benedict's. "They really cannot let their children out to play."
It is against this background that Maureen Perry has worked for six years to increase out-of-hours provision for her pupils. There are now three schemes: Early Birds is for children who for whatever reason want or need to be at school before 8am (there is an optional breakfast); after-school clubs run from 3pm to 4pm every evening, with a full menu of options including football, netball, gym, cookery, arts and crafts and computers; Stay Late runs from 3pm to 5.30pm, with tea provided. This is effectively an extension of the after-school clubs, but with its own staff of teachers, school assistants and parents.
St Benedict's is not unique. Many schools have similar schemes, but until recently there was little sharing of experience, and certainly no recognition of what was being achieved.
It was to fill this gap that "Education Extra'' was started in 1992 by Lord Young of Dartington - another far-sighted, spot-on brainwave from the man whose vision lies behind the Open University and the Consumers' Association. The idea was to encourage initiatives, share information about them and give modest financial help to deserving projects. Thus the St Benedict's Early Birds, for example, was started with the aid of an Education Extra award, and the school's other ventures have also had support over the years.
Education Extra's director is Dr Kay Andrews, a former academic who in the Eighties was Neil Kinnock's special adviser on education. ("Then we lost two elections and I thought I ought to do something else.") "What we planned, " she explains, "was a national award for out-of-school activities, to recognise and reward schools for their commitment and to enable them to take the next step." The group was also motivated by a desire to increase use of school buildings, and a conviction that teachers have more to offer than just the tasks laid down in the national curriculum.
At first, Dr Andrews was diffident about a project which could be seen as encouraging schools to take on extra work. "Schools were under great pressure, and we really expected to get dusty answers from them. In fact they fell on the idea," she says.
In 1993 Education Extra made awards totalling Pounds 10,000 to 22 schools. This year 300 schools will share awards worth more than Pounds 100,000, and presentations will be made throughout next week with local celebrities handing out the cheques. The awards reveal a huge variety of out-of-school activities - Pounds 200 for a line dancing teacher at Cornelius Vermuyden School, on Canvey Island; Pounds 250 for skipping at Torrington Junior, Catford; Pounds 650 for a history and drama club at Cumberworth First School, Kirklees. This diversity illustrates the Education Extra philosophy to accept, encourage and share the ideas that come from the schools. As Kay Andrews puts it, "We don't prescribe. Instead we pass on good ideas and build up a body of good practice, but it would be outrageous of us, to say, 'This is how you must do it'."
The "body of good practice'' comes from Education Extra's network of 1, 200 member schools, built up over the past five years, which are linked by a newsletter and advice sheets, and which have access to a free helpline. The experience and knowledge thus generated means that the charity has become the national authority on extra-curricular activity and learning. Education Extra managed this year's pilot Summer Literacy Scheme on behalf of the Government, and is heavily involved in 11 Family Literacy Projects funded through the Roald Dahl Foundation. It also ran the last government's pilot project in which 12 schools were funded to run after-school homework clubs. It offers in-service courses for teachers, and is establishing a presence in initial teacher training.
The effects of after-hours activities on learning and on attitudes to school are difficult to assess. However, when the report of the homework club pilot project is published later this year, it is likely to reveal measurable improvements, including enhanced GCSE grades in at least one school. Education Extra will also shortly publish its own survey in which schools will report on the benefits of such activities.
For their part, teachers and parents have no doubts about the effect on pupils' confidence and attitude to school. At Wodensborough School, in Sandwell, which has a rich programme of after-school activities, some supported by Education Extra awards, deputy head Graham Angell is sure that "the climate within the school is better, the pupils benefit from seeing teachers outside school hours and they begin to see that school is more than just lessons".
To see, as I did at St Benedict's, a group of children aged between five and 12 working together on art and craft at five in the afternoon, and then sharing a "family tea", is to be convinced that something inherently good is happening. I asked seven-year-old Samantha Carey at St Benedict's what she would have been doing had she not been at Stay Late. "Sitting at home watching TV for hours and being bored,'' she said. Her mother, Teresa, agreed. "It's really good for Samantha. She's an only child, and here she's with friends. It's safe here, and she's learning and there's discipline.'' Eight-year-old Kevin McMurray enjoyed being at Stay Late with his five-year-old brother Kieren "because in the day I only see him at dinner time".
The St Benedict's Stay Late group is used as a homework facility by some former pupils now at secondary school, and Maureen Perry plans to make this a more formal arrangement.
Always, though, there is the question of funding. Education Extra awards act as pump primers, but the long-term employment of staff makes more permanent demands. Thus the St Benedict's projects, like so many others, are self-financing. Early Birds costs Pounds 1 per child, after-school clubs are 50p, and Stay Late, staffed at one adult per eight children, costs parents Pounds 3 a time. This seems modest enough, but the cost means that for the McMurray lads, for example, Stay Late is a valued treat rather than a daily routine.
Will more money arrive? The Education White Paper makes very clear the Government's enthusiasm for homework clubs and other kinds of after-school learning. Furthermore, as Kay Andrews points out, there is a possibility of getting some money from the midweek lottery.
What she really wants, though, is flexibility in how schools can use the money. Education Extra's experience shows that many children first have to be attracted to stay at school for activities other than homework. Kay Andrews says: "We want to see the funding available for a full range of things, not just for sitting in a library. The kids in need are not just those who will come to a homework club. Schools should have some discretion about how they go about it."
This was not a casual remark. Flexibility - valuing and supporting each school's approach to out-of-school learning - has been the key theme of Education Extra from the start, and it has paid off handsomely.