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Libraries to help with homework

A network of pioneering homework clubs is being set up in local libraries in the London borough of Southwark to help secondary school pupils with their projects and homework after school and at weekends.

The initiative will warm the cockles of Labour education and employment spokesman David Blunkett's heart and is believed to be the first large-scale and systematic attempt by a local authority to involve the library service in boosting the educational achievement of pupils in this way.

Southwark is investing Pounds 28,000 in the scheme. Six part-time staff, known as "homework experts", have been trained and hired, and the clubs will open to 11 to 16-year-olds on April 22.

"We learnt that a number of children were using libraries in the borough for quiet space and for help with homework and projects," explained Yousiff Meah, Southwark after-school services manager. "The librarians were happy to help them find information but didn't have the time to give them all the assistance they needed."

Two-hour club sessions will be held on four weekdays and Saturdays. Children will be given help with any questions about their work and taught how to use computers, including CD-Rom technology (Southwark has built up a collection of GCSE curriculum materials on CD-Rom) as well as how to find their way around the libraries' collections. They will also be treated to a drink and a snack.

It is no coincidence that Southwark's library service won a Charter Mark last year for its imaginative schemes and sensitivity to local needs and suggestions. Local libraries in Southwark rent out personal computers at Pounds 1 an hour to residents and give them word processing programs and support. The libraries are in the process of hooking up to the Internet to enable library users to surf for Pounds 3 an hour.

Homework is one of the issues seized on by New Labour in its attempt to revitalise the party's education policy and produce ideas that promote educational achievement. In a speech last October Mr Blunkett recommended that primary pupils should do a minimum of half an hour's homework every night and spoke approvingly of local authority schemes to provide study support centres where secondary school pupils can go to work after school. Southwark's new network of homework clubs matches his ideas precisely.

Professor Michael Barber of London University's Institute of Education, has been helping with a bid from the Prince's Trust to the Millennium Commission to establish a national network of homework clubs on 40 sites around the United Kingdom. The clubs would be held in libraries and schools.

"There is quite a pattern of this sort of thing developing and it is all very positive," said Professor Barber. "There's no doubt that studying in an organised way helps children do better at school."

Other boroughs which have been or are running homework clubs are Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster, but Southwark is thought to be the first authority to set up the clubs on a systematic basis in its libraries.

It is not, however, publicising its initiative as widely as it could, because it fears being inundated by children eager for help with their homework. "Because it's such a new thing, it's difficult to anticipate what the demand will be," said David Murray, Southwark's service development librarian. "If numbers increase so that we can't accommodate them, we will look at putting the clubs elsewhere" One option would be to transfer them to the premises used by Southwark's existing network of 19 after-school clubs in primary schools, youth centres and church halls, where children can already go to do project work.

The plan is to evaluate how well the clubs are doing, the cost per child, and whether they are having an effect on educational attainment in the borough, currently fourth LEA from the bottom in the league table of GCSE results. It was bottom in 1994 and is pleased that it has managed to pull itself up from that position.

The evaluation will look at whether the clubs lead to an increase in completed homework, as well as the marks that pupils gain and whether children appear more alert and questioning in the classroom. The borough is hoping the clubs will live up to their name - that they will have their own identities and membership, and that children will help one another with their homework.

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