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Make mine a Big Mac and a better pass

A Prince's Trust summer project has helped underachievers by making learning a fun activity.

If you offered a group of fourth-year secondary pupils the chance to spend part of their summer holiday at school they would probably look at you in disbelief. If you told them that they would be taken to McDonald's and then skiing by their assistant headteacher, the retort might be "what's the catch?".

But that is what happened at St Joseph's Academy in Kilmarnock last week and the catch was they were participating in a Prince's Trust summer project. In collaboration with Ayrshire Education Business Partnership, the trust is funding activities to help underachievers prepare for their Standard grade exams next year.

The project is one of six taking place in Ayrshire this summer and aims to help overcome problems of self-esteem and confidence. They are pupils with potential who need a bit of a push in the right direction and whose needs might well pass unnoticed in a normal classroom environment.

By including activities such as a trip to the local dry ski slope, the project sets out to create a unique atmosphere. John Donagher, assistant headteacher of St Joseph's and chief co-ordinator of the project, explains the philosophy: "They get absolute attention here. They feel that they are special. Self-esteem is very important and the leisure activities help to create a different atmosphere for learning. You cannot expect children to come into school over the summer and not give them something like that."

Mr Donagher's enthusiasm rubs off on the pupils he has just taken to McDonald's for lunch. Patricia Kelly, Andrea McGinley, Laura McKellar and Emma Banner strike a chorus of "they teach you how to do things" when asked what they were getting out of the project.

Brian Chambers and William Dean feel the geography work they are doing serves as a dry run for Standard grade, and that they can learn from the mistakes they make without their final mark being affected.

They return to their computers to finish the geography assignment. Paul Dorien, their teacher, says: "The mechanism of learning is important. There are different resources that can be used, for instance the local library, which is an alien place to a lot of them. We can give them confidence to use these resources."

The pupils are mastering software that would baffle many adults, producing graphs analysing the local weather. They have collated information from a number of sources including impressively drafted letters to the Met Office that will count toward their final Standard grade rating.

Dorothy McCabe, principal teacher of guidance at St Joseph's, says: "Some of the pupils were having difficulty meeting homework deadlines, never mind having time to revise for their exams. They needed a little more attention, someone to sit down with them and effectively teach them how to learn. They are pretty disorganised and they tend to go about tasks in a very unsystematic way.

"Today we are going through the social subjects and the whole investigative procedure. Everything has got some kind of outcome so at the end they have got something they can use as a skeleton. Things like the planning process for the investigation have been gone over in much more detail, so when they go back into the classroom they will not be demanding immediate attention."

Dorothy McCabe comments: "The formality in class happens because you are keeping a tight reign on certain individuals. Those very individuals are coping well now, so it is not an issue. Yesterday they were asking us what our first names were and during the breaks they want to get to know us better."

Mr Donagher adds: "We hope that this will be the start of evening sessions doing the same thing. We hope to put up a display of the material that they have done this week and open it out to pupils with similar needs."

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