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Out of the classroom straitjacket

The pupils experience exciting ways of learning while the teachers discover how to extend their craft. Gerald Haigh reports on the ground breaking work of the University of the First Age

Degree students go to university. Lifelong learners can join the University of the Third Age - and now secondary school students have their own University of the First Age (UFA).

This is not a hothouse for precocious 12-year-olds, but a national network of schemes for teenagers that take learning out of the straitjacket of the classroom. It allows them to learn in a different context - on weekends, in the evenings and during holidays.

This is not a scheme that is replicated around the country - it's more of a brand that links minded projects. It can happen anywhere - in schools, community halls, education centres, even soccer grounds. And in Birmingham, where it started, it has a new home in the futuristic Millennium Point building.

The vision for the project goes back to 1996. Maggie Farrar who launched the original talks of "Ienriching learning and unlocking creativity for teachers".

So what exactly does that mean in the everyday world? Lucy Mines, who runs the Cornwall equivalent, describes it as "the experimental arm of the schools, where new approaches to learning can be tried and tested".

Having the idea is one thing, but bringing it to life is another. That was the job of Birmingham's chief education officer, Tim Brighouse.

In the mid- 1990s, Brighouse began to think, write and speak about the way young people were falling behind in the early secondary school years - "a time when not enough of them are gaining the confidence that comes from real success," he said.

No doubt some of the solutions were linked to good school leadership, but Brighouse knew it didn't end there: "I thought we should organise something beyond school," he says,"with mixed-age accelerated learning and early success."

Getting the scheme off the ground took a little unintentional help from the then Conservative education minister John Patten. Of the early funding, pound;25,000 was provided from the award made in Brighouse's favour when he was famously libelled by the minister.

The idea soon drew support, and partners now include the University of Central England, Birmingham's local authority and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which funded the training of the first "fellows" - teachers trained to work at the university.

To lead the enterprise, Brighouse recruited Maggie Farrar, formerly a deputy head at Haggerston School in Hackney.

"Tim was keen to set up an organisation that would transcend the individual school and community," she says.

Today, Birmingham is just one of a network that includes 31 local authorities, with a further 50 expected by 2004. Across the UK, thousands of young people don UFA sweatshirts to attend out-of-school activities, typically in their own or neighbouring schools.

It is aimed chiefly at key stage 3, but there are also Year 6 activities to help ease the transfer from primary to secondary. Keen students approaching key stage 4 can gain valuable experience in mentoring and leadership by training as a peer tutor.

The university's expansion is driven by the Government's increasing interest in out-of-hours learning. Authorities faced with the challenge of using the various funding streams for extended learning see the UFA model as a heaven-sent opportunity.

But Maggie Farrar points out that newcomers don't have to set up a clone of the original. "We encourage local flexibility. In Leeds, for example, there's a strong partnership with Leeds United, Leeds-Bradford Airport and the White Rose Shopping Centre, and in Norfolk there's a good link with the Theatre Royal in Norwich."

The common element is the concern with exploring new ideas about teaching and learning such as recent theories of `multiple intelligence' The expectation is that the teachers involved will also become missionaries for creative teaching back in their classrooms.

Francoise Leake, head of Westborough High, a UFA partner in Kirklees, believes the work done by her staff has made an impact on their practice.

"It helps create better teaching and learning environments," she says. "It's made students more motivated and focused teachers on their own learning."

A new breed of out-of- hours learning co-ordinators is also proving an important factor. Ian Spence, who holds that post at Washwood Heath school in Birmingham, and is a trained UFA fellow, says: "We've had an `emotional intelligence' day for Year 7 and UFA supports us with input on study skills - mind mapping that helps teachers to be more effective in lessons, and demonstrating some lessons in the classroom."

At Frankley Community High in Birmingham, the out-of-hours learning co-ordinator, Jane Field, runs courses at weekends and in the holidays to train Year 10 and Year 11 students as peer tutors. Community links are vital, too.

For example, Adam Brooks, 17, is a member of the New Jerusalem Church, a predominantly black church in Birmingham. He is a volunteer with young church members and was spotted by Birmingham UFA's community education development manager. He now wears the T-shirt, gets trained as a tutor and was reently at Millennium Point helping Year 6 pupils with UFA activities.

"It's excellent," he says, "and it'll help me decide whether I want to go on working with young people as a career."

Contacts

University of the First Age Tel: 0121 202 2347Stand C374

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