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Switched on after hours

John MacBeath, Kate Myers and Tony Kirwan explain how study support can turn pupils on to learning

The study-support programmes introduced by a growing number of schools are making an impact. They not only boost attainment but raise attendance and improve attitudes to school and learning. These findings from our national evaluation, announced at a conference in London yesterday, did not come as a complete surprise.

Long before embarking on our evaluation programme we were aware that study support could have a profound impact on young people, but was that true for everyone? Did it depend on the individual school, age, stage and characteristics of pupils who volunteered or were persuaded to attend? Or did it depend on the type of programme? Study support covers a range of activities: help with basic literacy, GCSE revision, drop-in centres, homework, investigative science projects or creative writing. The Department for Education and Skills says it can even encompass sports, aesthetic activities, peer education and mentoring.

We were unsure that gains could be measured in ways that would convince policy-makers, impress journalists or satisfy statisticians.

Demonstrating added value is a tricky matter. We may measure spurts in pupils' progress - exceeding prediction and expectation - given what we know about where they started. But we are less sure about how to attribute those gains. Separating the study-support effect from other influences was a real challenge.

Between autumn 1997 and last summer we tracked two cohorts totalling more than 8,000 students from 52 schools serving disadvantaged areas in England, Scotland and Wales. The larger cohort was tracked from Year 9 through to their GCSEs and the other from Year 7 to their key stage 3 tests.

Each school was allocated a critical friend who visited regularly throughout the study, supporting the schools to review and enhance out-of-school-hours provision and collect qualitative data from students and staff. Case studies were undertaken in 12 schools by a team from the National Foundation for Educational Research and Create Consultants.

The baseline attainment and attitude data we compiled on these 8,000 young people were complemented by background information on gender, ethnic group and free-school-meal entitlement. Three years on, the same pupils were reassessed to see the differences in attainment, attitudes and school attendance, comparing those who attended study support with those who did not.

This is not a simple distinction since study support covers a plethora of possibilities. Participation also varied widely, from more than 90 per cent of a year group to less than 15 per cent.

Most schools targeted Years 10 and 11, increasing the number of subject and examination-related activities as the date for GCSE exams approached. Boys and girls participated in study support to the same extent, but pursued different interests. Girls were more likely to attend subject-focused and aesthetic activities. Boys favoured sports. Students from minority ethnic groups took part in study support rather more than white students and benefited more.

In general, students involved in suh programmes do significantly better in their national curriculum tests and GCSEs than those who are not involved, as our key findings box (bottom) shows. Study support also improves attitudes to school and attendance rates. These key findings - which apply to all the schools in the study - do, however, conceal more than they reveal. The school in question, the quality and nature of provision make a difference.

The differential effects for different groups is a story all of its own. The inter-relationship between raised attainment and participation in sports, music, drama and community service presents a complex and important equation.

It is, however, clear that the hallmarks of effective study support are its voluntary nature, its student-led agenda, its flexibility and responsiveness, the informality of relationships between teachers and students, the quality of peer support and self-help.

In the short term, it can contribute to raising attainment. In the medium term, it re-engages young people with school. In the longer term, its most powerful benefits will be clear if learning becomes a way of life. Time will be the test of that.

John MacBeath is professor of education at the University of Cambridge, Kate Myers is visiting professor at Homerton College, Cambridge, and Tony Kirwan is head of quality in study support, National Youth Agency. Their DFEE-funded study was undertaken by the youth agency with support from Jim McCall, Iain Smith and Euan Mackay of the University of Strathclyde. The full report, "The Impact of Study Support" (DFEE RR273), is available from DFEE Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 ODJ. An abstract is at and

With a little bit of extra effort . . .

Students attending study support programmes, on average, achieved one A-C pass more than students of equal ability who did not participate. This is the equivalent of three-and-a-half grades on their "best five" scores.

GCSE attainment in maths and English improved by half a grade, on average.

* GCSE performance was most affected by subject-focused, drop-in provision and Easter revision courses.

* Involvement in sport, aesthetic activities and drop-in sessions also raised attainment levels.

* Key stage 3 maths scores improved by one third of a level, on average, and science attain-ment by three-quarters of a level.

Pupils who benefit most * All students benefit from study support.

* Boys and girls benefit to roughly the same extent.

* The effect on GCSE performance of minority ethnic students is more pronounced.

Attitudes to school * Drop-in activities and subject-focused study support in Year 11 has the biggest effect on attitudes.

* Sport and aesthetic activities can also improve attitudes.

* Self-esteem and willingness to participate in class are particularly influenced by study support.

School attendance * Some forms of study support can improve attendance.

* Subject-focused and drop-in support in Year 11 has thelargest effect on attendance.

* Sport has an effect in some schools.

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