The media this week discovered the Prince of Wales's long-established enthusiasm for supported study when he addressed a conference held by his young people's trust in Edinburgh. The speech coincided with politicians vying to show a commitment to homework and followed stories that the Prince is studying ways of boosting his own flagging support in the country.
Although attention centred on the Prince's supposed intervention in the homework debate, his speech announced a series of research projects by the Prince's Trust into literacy and independent learning skills as well as homework. He said: "There is no doubt in my mind about the contribution study support can make to children who require help to learn in an environment free from competing distractions."
John MacBeath, director of Strathclyde University's Quality in Education Centre, which has worked with the Prince's Trust for several years on supported study schemes, said that homework clubs alone were not an adequate way of helping pupils. Those who succeed have to take responsibility for their own learning.
With the Prince's Trust hoping for 1,000 supported study centres throughout the UK by the millennium, there is to be a "code of good practice" - a "kitemark", as the Prince called it - by which centres can evaluate their own work and maintain quality. The Scottish Office and the Department for Education and Employment are supporting the new code.
Brian Boyd, co-director of the QIE Centre, said study schemes need not be confined to schools. They were being developed in community centres and even mosques. A relaxed atmosphere was important, and pupils themselves noted benefits: self-confidence, study skills, help with school subjects, new friends, a sense of achievement and a firing of ambition.
Responding to claims that pupils who could most benefit are often deterred from attending after-hours programmes because of travel problems or concern about safety in the evenings, Dr Boyd said that organisers were aware of difficulties and tried to help with transport.
Robin Lingard, chairman of the Prince's Trust Action project in the Highlands, told the conference that underachievement was not just an urban problem. "The waste of young talent in rural areas can be more devastating than in towns, " Mr Lingard said.
Gerry Wilson, secretary of the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, said that the work of the Prince's Trust accorded with that of the Government. Mr Wilson instanced the recent report by the Secretary of State's task force on underachievement.
"Many of the recommendations touch on the issue of study support and in particular recommended that the department should continue to work with the Prince's Trust to assist education authorities and schools. I am happy to assure you that we will continue to do that."