Fife's fun and games show the sunny side of learning

Douglas Blane says there are lessons for schools in how more informal methods of teaching can bring out the enthusiasm

HAVING been slightly delayed in getting to the meeting place, Julie Richardson, co-ordinator of Fife's personal and social development summer school, is a little anxious. The youngsters on the course arrived earlier, giving them ample opportunity to talk frankly about its merits and deficiencies uninhibited by adult ears.

"I wanted to sit down with them for five minutes first and go over what we were going to talk about," she says. "Were they OK? What did they say about the course?" She needn't have worried - the feedback has been wholly positive.

"It's free and it's fun and it's really cool," is the verdict on this fifth day of the week-long course. "It is nothing like school."

The last point is not just the one mentioned most often ("Julie and the others don't act like teachers. They're more friendly and they join in what you're doing. If they shout it's not directed at you, it's more like encouragement"). It is also the point heard most often at summer schools and special projects throughout the country.

Perhaps if schools drew a few lessons, their pupils would feel happier and more respected and behaviour would improve.

Summer schools have an easier task because of several factors that teachers encounter only in their dreams. Participants are volunteers rather than conscripts, child to adult ratios are often in single figures and children respond well to anything out of the ordinary, at least until the novelty wears off.

But this does not mean schools can learn nothing from summer schools, because the main difference between the two is not that the former are all about work and the latter about fun - although that is the perception of most participating youngsters. It's that the balance between carrot and stick in summer schools strongly favours the former. It has to or nobody would come to them.

What Fife Council has realised is that the necessary emphasis on rewards and enjoyment does not preclude education. On the contrary the creation of a pleasant atmosphere and friendly relations between adults and children makes educational goals easier to achieve. So what the council has done is to target one curricular area in each of seven summer schools, which are run jointly by education and community services, and financed by the New Opportunities Fund for the next three years.

Besides personal and social development, Fife has organised summer schools in the arts, sport, science and technology, maths and ICT, environment and heritage, and media and communications, each one centred on a different secondary school with pupils from nearby schools bussed in.

First option of places is offered to those "in greatest need of additional support", with remaining vacancies thrown open to the whole of the S2-S4 target groups.

"We have a good mix of youngsters on this course," Ms Richardson says. "One of the first clues that we were on the right lines came when a boy who is a bit hyper said at the end of the first day: 'I can't believe how chilled I am'."

That first day was designed, using icebreaker and trust-building games familiar to the organisers from their community education and youth work, to break down barriers and get everyone on the same wavelength fast. The following two days saw teams working on three types of challenge - physical, mental and personal - with points gathered by individuals but awarded to the group as a whole.

The grand total was used to determine if an outing on the fourth day was to first, second or third choice destinations. (They collected enough for their first choice - Strathclyde Country Park.) When asked about their favourite activities some mention the mental puzzles, others the navigation or the catapult-building - in which points were awarded not just for successful outcomes, but for life skills that often go unrewarded in school, such as teamwork, initiative and enthusiasm.

But the personal challenges are the ones mentioned most often:

"We talked about ourselves. We learnt what to do when people put us down. We learnt how to give compliments and accept them. It was uncomfortable at times, but it was cool too."

The final part of the course is a weekend at an outdoors centre offering activities like kayaking, hiking and climbing that are new to many of the youngsters.

"I know what it's going to be like come Sunday," Ms Richardson says. "A bus full of kids jumping with excitement and none of them wanting to go home."

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