Tony Blair has reaffirmed the Government's commitment to support for learning out of school. In his introduction to the national Code of Practice, the Prime Minister wrote that "realising the vision depends crucially on our education service ensuring that all our young people achieve their full potential at school, combined with wider opportunities to learn outside the classroom".
It is a testament to Scottish schools that so many of the examples in the code are home-grown and at the leading edge of good practice, and that the code was produced here in Scotland. Study support, homework clubs and community-based learning centres are all multiplying at an exponential rate throughout Britain. Such initiatives are growing because they are seen to be successful, and schools which have been longest in the business have seen their efforts maturing and bearing fruit.
For many people study support is self-evidently a good thing, but funding bodies and policy-makers will need to be convinced by more systematic and longer term evidence. The Prince's Trust, a major funder and champion of study support for five years, believes it is time for a more coherent national infrastructure and a harder body of evidence. The trust has, therefore, commissioned the Quality in Education Centre to undertake a longitudinal study which will follow a cohort of 10,000 pupils over the three years to their Standard grade and GCSE exams.
The study will compare the attainment, attendance and attitudes of those who attend study support with those who don't and will investigate which forms of provision appear to be most effective for what purposes. Together with background factors on each of these 10,000 individual young people it will provide a rich source of data. It is the first study to use a school effectiveness methodology to monitor and evaluate what happens outside classrooms and so offers a unique and ground-breaking opportunity to learn about learning in informal and voluntary settings.
It is a central premise of the study that the data be shared and explored with the participating schools, helping them to use data for themselves, to become more comfortable with analysis and interpretation and to integrate it into their practice. Data can provide confirmation for teachers' impressionistic judgments as well as challenging or confronting those judgments.
The initiative is not just about gathering or using data, however. It will be also be a collaborative exploration of out-of-school learning, identifying best practice and encouraging networking among schools and centres so that they can learn from one another. It will encourage young people themselves to adopt a more self-critical approach to their own learning styles, patterns of work and habits of study.
It will encourage them to take greater charge of their own learning and in so doing to play a more active part in decision-making. It will, hopefully, help them to take responsibility for themselves for improving what happens within study centres. This action research component will enable teachers and researchers to test hypotheses and to add to our communal knowledge of what works and what makes a difference. The ultimate test of study support is in how it feeds back into the mainstream conduct of schools. How are the experiences of pupils and teachers applied to the day to day life of classrooms? Does it encourage young people to take greater control of their own learning? Will it stimulate young people to be lifetime learners - a fundamental priority in the European Commission's Learning for the Twenty-First Century and Education Beyond Schooling?
The potential benefits are not just for individual teachers and pupils, but for wider policy-making. The extended school day and schools-after-schools are receiving increasing attention internationally but they are not being systematically evaluated, and often rest on unquestioned assumptions. The extended school day, which offers simply more of the same, or more of what has already failed to work for some young people, might prove to be counter-productive whereas a shorter school day with more opportunity for study support, mentoring, coaching and community projects may be more effective.
The answers to these questions will contribute to reshaping the code of practice and to continue to reshape it as we learn more about how learning works in this largely unexplored terrain of learning out of school.
John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University.