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School of thought

The Children's University helps pupils tap into talents not reached by the official curriculum. Diane Hinds reports. Photography by Steve Hill. his summer, 3,000 Birmingham primary school children will spend two weeks of their holiday at university - the Children's University, that is. This organisation was founded in 1994, and can be attended free-of-charge, on a voluntary basis. The university is dedicated to putting the fun back into learning.

The Olympics and "Going for Gold" are the themes of this summer's course. Participants will collate Olympic data (numeracy) and report on events as if they were foreign correspondents. They will also scour libraries for Olympic material (literacy) and in the afternoons may choose to make life-size models from chicken wire, undertake environmental studies in city parks or take part in sports activities at leisure centres.

The climax of the fortnight will be an Olympic extravaganza, created by the children and watched by parents and friends on August 18 at Birmingham's International Convention Centre.

According to the Children's University director, Ann Wood, the organisation's key principles are that learning does not just happen in school; and that it is not only teachers from whom you can learn.

By approaching learning in a different way from the school curriculum - devising projects that are nourished by children's own experiences and giving them more choices in how they tackle them - children can be more actively involved in, and excited by, their own learning. They are also able to develop their own strengths.

If that all sounds a bit like idealistic, back-to-the-70s educational dreaming, then take a closer look, because the Children's University also has the virtue of being well-structured and highly organised, with a whole raft of certificates and medals to motivate and reward children's achievement.

If, alternatively, you are someone who hankers after the comparative freedoms of teaching in the old, pre-national curriculum days, then the Children's University could be just up your street - and you can dispense with all the stress of chasing government targets.

Accelerated learning The Children's University was the brainchild of Sir David Winkley, former head of Grove primary school, Handsworth, Birmingham. He is a keen proponent of accelerated learning, where children's excitement about, and aptitude for a subject can take them way beyond the level generally expected for their age. In the early 1990s he was involved in setting up the National Primary Trust (of which he is now president), having felt that a university for children could be a valuable trust project. "The school day - particularly with the demands of the national curriculum - was too short, we felt, to offer children a sufficiently wide range of things. There was also an awareness that children don't get out and play so much, and that they get locked into an abstract, televisual world, which is clearly not good for them."

Tim Brighouse, then newly installed chief education officer for Birmingham, was sympathetic to the idea, and Ann Wood, a former secondary teacher working in community education, was brought in to help set it in motion. Initial funding came from the King Edward VI Foundation, with enthusiastic backing from Hugh Wright, then chief master at the King Edward VI independent school for boys - now retired and chairman of the Children's University National Network.

The Foundation had been supporting some Saturday morning tuition for gifted children, but Hugh Wright felt something else was needed: "I wanted to reach children in the community who were under-privileged. Sir David Winkley and Ann Wood were in touch with a lot of dynamic people in the primary sector in Birmingham, and it seemed obvious to them that you could get children to be enthusiastic, and find abilities they didn't know they had, if you approached their studies in a different way."

So the Children's University was launched in November 1994, with around 100 children taking part in six pilot courses on Saturday mornings in local primary schools. The course leaders, who included teachers as well as higher education specialists with particular talents (paid at adult eduction rates), devised topics based on children's experiences. These reflected not just academic subjects, but a whole range of their creative and leisure activities. "The courses give children ways of practising skills, without realising they're doing it," says Hugh Wright.

Culture change

One of the first maths projects, "Around the World in Thirty Days", involved children as managers of a pop group working out the logistics and expenses of a world tour. Another short course, designed by Ridpool primary school, asked them to investigate the way that being on a flight path to the city affected their lives.

Judi Askew, headteacher at Ridpool, in a deprived part of Birmingham, joined the Children's University pilot because she wanted to "change the culture" at the school, and motivate children by giving them a taste of the fun of learning. Six years on, the "university" is highly prized by her pupils (as well as being a source of pride to their parents), and its ethos of learning-because-you-want-to, has rubbed off on the school, improving children's concentration and achievement.

Askew said: "They like the fact that it is called a university, and I think this will boost their aspirations. For instance, the mother of a girl who gained a Children's University gold medal told me that her daughter now hopes to go to university."

David Brodie, head of Prince Albert School, also one of the first Children's University centres, likes the scheme "because it's well structured and organised, but there's a little bit of creative madness there too, which is vital." More child-centred and project-based than the national curriculum, it helps children "who may not be accessing the curriculum, because it doesn't suit their needs," he says. "The literacy and numeracy strategies, for example, are quite compartmentalised, always moving on from step to step, but some children do not learn like that. The Children's University helps them develop different learning styles. They have a lot of fun, and in terms of self-esteem and confidence, they flourish."

From modest beginnings, Birmingham's Children's University now works with around 10,000 primary children every year. It holds Saturday morning courses in 13 centres around the city and also has holiday courses. Demand is constantly growing, not only in Birmingham, but around the country, where 22 other local authorities have already established Children's Universities. The flexibility of the original idea makes it possible for other regions to adapt or develop it according to their needs, and a set of guidelines drawn up by the National Network ensures that all branches retain the same basic philosophy and principles.

With the rise in numbers, however, the need for more funding is increasingly acute. The Children's University in Birmingham includes charitable trusts, commercial companies and the New Opportunities Fund among its funding sources. Ann Wood says that, although it is hoped to keep the university free for as long as possible, charges may have to be introduced in the future.

Meanwhile, ideas abound as to how the Children's University can continue to develop and expand. Ann Wood is setting up video-conferencing this summer with a group in Ireland, and sees distance-learning - with projects for children to work on at home - as a strong future direction. Sir David Winkley's vision is for the Children's University to be instrumental in binding together in-school and out-of-school learning so that all children can pursue individual programmes, with access to a range of learning experiences, and have the chance to discover, and develop, their own special talents.

"The national curriculum is not, on its own, going to be able to accommodate all the needs of modern children," he says. "This, I believe, is where the future lies."

A day at 'university'

It's Saturday morning at Marlborough junior school, Small Heath, Birmingham, and 140 Year 5 children - predominantly Asian - from six primary schools, are busy working on literacy. With many children speaking English as a second language, this was a part of the curriculum where schools felt they needed some support - particularly with this group approaching SATs next year.

"We are not SATs driven," explains Ann Wood. "But because we are child-centred, we want to be able to help where we can."

In some respects, this might be any normal school day, except the atmosphere is more informal. Chairs stand on unused desks, fewer lights are on and small groups of children move from one classroom to another - papers in hand - locked in discussion.

In one room, nine-year-old Kasim is conducting an interview with his father - recorded on a tape recorder - about the future of Rover, where his father works. Two boys prepare to take pictures with a digital camera.

"It was my idea to do the interview," says Kasim. "I thought it would be more interesting than what we do at school. We're going to type it up on the computer for the newspaper we're making."

Next door, a group of girls put the finishing touches to a newspaper feature about pop singers. "At school you don't get the chance to do things this fun," says Sofina, 10. "Sometimes the teachers at school don't let you work in the group you want; here you get to work with your friends." All the children say they are here because they want to be, because they like it - and their parents like it too.

Their teacher, Anita Leach says the children get more chances to develop interpersonal skills, to work in groups and take responsibility for their learning. They are also responsible for self-discipline, and there is rarely a problem with poor behaviour. She believes smaller classes (usually 10 to 20) do help, but says it is the personalised nature of the work that makes the difference.

"Children here get a clear picture of their own strengths. It's OK for them to say: 'I'm not that good at writing at the moment, but I'm wicked at drawing'."

In another lively session, children are telling stories based on objects they draw from a hat. Others are writing fantasy books or researching studies of wild animals - activities that may happen in any primary school, but the advantage here, the teachers say, is that children have time to concentrate on one thing (about 10 hours per project), away from the flurry of the national curriculum.

For more information about the Children's University, visit or call 0121-303 8294. For details about the New Opportunities Fund, visit


At St Patrick's RC primary school, a Children's University centre in the mixed, inner-city area of Ladywood, it took about three years to get the university's "learning culture" off the ground, says Ann Wood. Now, however, the Saturday morning sessions are well established. This term, about 100 eight and nine-year-olds from eight local schools can choose between dance (extremely popular with the girls); circus skills; German for beginners; science (firmly experiment-led); or maths (more fun than it sounds, with the emphasis on problem-solving games).

"It's like an antidote to school," says Gerry Hickey, headteacher at St Patrick's. "We haven't got the pressures, and the children don't have to do anything. Without harking back to pre-national curriculum days, it's that easy feeling - and it's a good laugh, too."

While the school gym pulsates with the energy and rhythm of a group of girls learning a complex dance routine, outside in the playground a cheerful bunch of children are trying their luck with juggling balls, diabolos and spinning plates on sticks.

"I like learning to do what circus people do," says 10-year-old Luke, triumphant after a second attempt to walk with his feet tied to large stilts.

"I like circus skills best, and I'd like to be in a circus," says Hamzeh, 10. "But I don't like the other things here: they're boring, they're like school."

All the equipment (including unicycles later in the term) is provided by project leader, Eamonn Rolleston, who is a skilled performer in a circus theatre group, as well as a primary supply teacher.

"I really want them to enjoy it, and I think they're getting a fair amount of self-esteem," he says. "Some of them need a lot more support than others, and if something doesn't work the first time, I have to motivate them to try again. It took me ages to learn how to do the diabolo, but some of these children learn it in half an hour."

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