Extra-curricular activities - after-school clubs and societies - are about to be given a big boost. Study support, covering everything from homework clubs and sports to drama and music, is a lynchpin of the Government's drive to raise educational standards in schools. A pound;200 million fund will be used to help develop a national system of after-school activities, welding together much of what is already happening with new clubs and ventures.
Dr Kay Andrews, director of Education Extra, a group set up six years ago to promote after-school activities, sees the initiative as a breakthrough. "It's one of the most exciting developments in education for years because it is the first time the connection has been made between what is going on outside and inside school," she says.
"It will mean new partnerships between schools and their communities and will open up the curriculum and encourage independent learning. It will mean new opportunities for millions of children."
The aim is to give after-school activities status as part of the educational process. As Education Secretary David Blunkett explains in the recent document Extending Opportunity: A National Framework for Study Support, learning outside school hours should go hand-in-hand with the work of teachers in the classroom.
"The many activities which make up study support have in common the aim of creating well-motivated, independent young people who will become lifelong learners," writes David Blunkett. "They are so important that they need to be seen as a vital part of children's education."
Evidence of the benefits of after-school activities is piling high. A survey published last year by Professor Michael Barber and Kate Myers, both then at London University's Institute of Education, shows a close link between high levels of participation in extra-curricular activities and improved achievement. They also found that such activities were popular with parents and pupils.
The Office for Standards in Education has confirmed that such activities lead to higher standards.
A report in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the most deprived in the country, found that schools with a programme of study support showed an average 30 per cent increase in GCSE scores and a 10-fold increase compared with schools lacking such programmes. Students who attend study support can double their chance of getting top GCSE grades, the report by the project's co-ordinator, Stephen Yip, says.
But after-school activities are not just about improving examination results. A study by Professor John MacBeath of Strathclyde University in 1992 found not only a 20 per cent improvement in examination results but also marked improvements in attitudes to school. A study of 9,000 children that he is carrying out is expected to show similar results.
"It's not just about getting homework done or trying to raise achievement," he says. "It's about giving kids the feeling that they are in control and giving them the skills and motivation they need to become independent learners."
The Prince's Trust helps to support hundreds of study support groups in schools and youth clubs all over the country which are aimed at youngsters from less well-off backgrounds and has recently produced a guide to setting them up. Such activities, says the trust, can help rekindle an interest in self-improvement in youngsters disaffected by school. And with the mushrooming number of young people excluded from school or persistently playing truant, and worrying evidence of drug use and crime among the young, such an aim is increasingly important.
Tom Wylie, chair of the Prince's Trust's study support committee and chief executive of the National Youth Agency, points out that the gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged pupils is growing. Research into the first 10 years of the GCSEs has shown that results of those from the top 10 per cent of the richest homes have improved faster than for those from the poorest. But the constraints of the national curriculum and relatively formal relationships between teachers and their pupils mean there is only so much that schools can do to close the gap.
"Study support can help young people's confidence and open up new horizons by offering new experiences," says Tom Wylie. "The issue is how you can secure the education of youngsters who feel that school isn't for them. If study support is properly directed at the most disadvantaged schools and communities and draws on the youth workers who have relationships that reach the parts that schools cannot reach, then it will work."
Getting the new national framework of out-of-school activities off the ground will be a huge exercise in bringing different agencies together. The Government, local education authorities, careers services, libraries, business, voluntary organisations and the youth service are all supposed to be joining forces to make it happen.
Anne Longfield of the Kids' Club Network, which runs 3,500 clubs offering everything from drama to canoeing and is planning to expand the total to 30,000 over the next five years, warns that there is a history of bureaucracy to overcome.
"People need to work together in schools and community groups. We need to make sure that childcare schemes and out-of-school learning schemes work together to give children the best possible opportunities."
* The Code of Practice, Study Support, The Prince's Trust 18 Park Square East, London NW1 4LH(0171-5431397) * Education Extra, St Margaret's House, 17 Old Ford Road, London E2 9PL (0181 983 1061) * Kids' Club Network, Bellerive House, 3 MuirfieldCrescent, London E14 9SZ (0171 512 2112)