Study support, homework clubs and community-based learning centres are currently growing exponentially, because out-of-hours learning is seen to increase attainment in those schools which have tried it.
To most people, study support centres are self-evidently a good thing. However, funding bodies, policy-makers and academics need to be convinced by more systematic, longer-term evidence.
The Prince's Trust-Action, a champion of study support for six years, also believes it is time for some hard evidence. The trust has already helped more than 500 schools to develop study support centres and aims to create a national network of 1,000 centres by 2000. It has embarked on a three-year research study, initially in partnership with Tower Hamlets, Merseyside, Sandwell, Southwark, Newcastle and Birmingham.
Does study support add value and if so in what way? What works, and what are the key components of successful initiatives? Can these examples help us to define a code of practice which will guide study support centres and endorse those where success is demonstrable? Can methodologies used to assess added value in school-hours learning be applied to out-of-hours learning?
The "value-added" question has joined policy-makers and academics in a common pursuit of the contribution that schools make to achievement - as compared with external influences.
Unfavourable comparisons between Britain and Korea, Taiwan, or Japan have sharpened the debate as to where different sources of influence lie - with school-related factors such as classroom methodology and discipline, or more with personal motivation, home study, parental support, or deeper-lying cultural factors?
School effectiveness studies have tried to answer these questions by honing a methodology which collects extensive data on each individual pupil, taking into account background factors (age, gender, social class, ethnic origin) and playing these out in counterpoint with data on achievement, attendance and attitudes.
The richer the data at individual pupil level, the greater the possibilities for exploring group, class, departmental and whole-school effects and, by default, seeking to isolate the X, Y and Z factors - home, community and peer group effects.
It is the X,Y and Z factors we know least about, but which we do know are powerful in determining success and failure.
The Prince's Trust-Action's support for a longitudinal study over three years provides a ground-breaking opportunity to study out-of-hours learning in school settings and in community contexts and to share the findings.
The experience gained in the ambitious Improving School Effectiveness study provides a model for this initiative. In this Scottish model, researchers gathered extensive quantitative and qualitative baseline data on cohorts of pupils in each of the 80 participating schools, together with school level data, and fed this information back to management and teaching staff. It helped to inform their forward planning and to identify priorities, and to assess their progress against data gathered when the exercise was repeated with the same cohort of pupils (and their teachers) two years later.
This methodology is now being applied to out-of-hours learning. Six months of trialing of instruments and approaches has already taken place, and in September the project will have in place the necessary framework to gather data on Year 9 (S3 in Scotland) pupils in about 50 schools across the partnership areas.
All Year 9 pupils will be involved whether or not they attend out-of-hours projects and will be tracked over three years, taking them up to their GCSEStandard Grade results. This will allow the regular and faithful attenders of study support centres to be compared with non-attenders and spasmodic attenders.
Information will not only be collected on attainment and attendance but also on students' expectations and attitudes to school, to homework, to self-study. Teachers' expectations, attitudes and predictions for their pupils will also be used as part of the total data set.
While such data is food and drink to researchers and often jealously guarded, it is invaluable to teachers. The central premise of the evaluation initiative is that the data be shared and explored with the participating schools and centres, helping them to use data for themselves, to become more comfortable with analysis and interpretation and to integrate it into their practice.
The initiative is not just about gathering or using data, however. It will be a systematic study of learning out of school, identifying best practice, encouraging networking among schools and centres so that they can learn from one another.
For teachers it will provide a sharper approach to how young people learn. It will ask young people themselves to adopt a more self-critical approach to the efficacy of their own learning styles, patterns and habits of study. It will encourage them to take greater charge of their own learning and in so doing to play a more active part in decision-making and in taking responsibility for improving provision and the process of study support.
The litmus test of this will be in how it feeds back into the mainstream conduct of schools. Will experience in study support be applied to the day-to-day life of classrooms? Will it encourage young people to take greater control of their own careers? to be more proactive? to be better team players? to develop leadership skills? (the key competencies valued by employers and high on the list of government training targets).
The potential benefits are not just for individual teachers and pupils, nor even only for school improvement, but for wider policy-making, even at international level.
The extended school day and "schools after school" are receiving increasing attention internationally, but are not being systematically evaluated.
The extended school day, which offers simply more of the same, or more of what has already failed to work for some, may be counter-productive - whereas a shorter school day with more opportunity for study support, mentoring, coaching and collaborative projects may be more effective.
The answers will add strength and conviction to the code of practice which the trust is developing with schools, centres, community and employment agencies. The code, Mark I of which will be launched at the trust's autumn conference, sets out some key parameters of effective study support.
The code will not provide a tight prescription but will mean that any initiative worthy of receiving a nationally-recognised kite-mark will have to have: clarity of purpose, a targeted clientele, carefully selected tutors and co-ordinators, appropriate resources, a coherent link with mainstream school practice and a systematic approach to evaluation.
Effective study support may yet prove to be a vital missing link in the chain of learning connecting community and school, but it must be evaluated - and evaluate itself - with rigour, an open mind and a readiness to learn.
If you would like a copy of the new report, Towards a Code of Practice, or further information about the Prince's Trust-Action's Study Support programme, please contact Molly Lowell at the trust on 0171 543 1270.
Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde