A second chance to shine

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
In a corner of a Birmingham primary classroom two teenagers are working as tutors, helping younger children with their reading on a one-to-one basis.

Birmingham is well known for its ambitious reading targets, but this particular scene is about more than primary school literacy. The teenagers are secondary school pupils deemed at risk of failure. This cross-age tutoring, which takes place three times a week, is part of an innovative programme to help build self-esteem.

The teenagers are provided with trained mentors from the local community, who support them in their work through fortnightly meetings. In return for their tutoring, the secondary pupils receive vouchers for books, shops and even entrance to local sports events.

Involving problem teenagers in this way is a venture inspired by a project in the US. The Birmingham scheme involves 42 teenagers with behavioural difficulties which have led to truancy, disruption or temporary expulsion. It has an annual budget of Pounds 20,000.

Six primaries are taking part in the project, run by the Second City Second Chance charity. It is directed by former head Gethin Davies, who is seconded by Birmingham City Council specifically to work on schemes tackling behavioural problems.

Mr Davies says: "This scheme is a way of trying to help these kids regain some self respect. They are all volunteers who want to help themselves."

The head of Summerfield Primary School in Winson Green, Talochan Singh, says: "I was keen to be involved with local schools. The tutors provide children with individual attention as well as giving them someone they can relate to closely."

He says the confidence of the teenagers taking part is improving and they are now taking on challenges they would not have attempted before.

Darren Edwards, 13, is enjoying the challenge and finds the tutoring interesting. "I was shocked that they picked me to take part because I don't normally get picked for anything," he says.

Mia Jassi, also 13, says: "This is good. And I'm enjoying helping the little ones. The teachers are nice and I hope to keep going with the work."

Mr Davies believes the provision of such a controlled challenge to adolescents will increase their feelings of self worth and help reduce the number of exclusions.

Lordswood Boys School has seven secondary pupils taking part. Headteacher John Gardener says: "I was interested from the outset. The young people have responded to the responsibility and have shone."

He fears the only drawback might be a lack of adult mentors. But he has been heartened by the numbers who have already come forward from all walks of life.

The boys taking part from his schools are all 12 and 13 years old, are disadvantaged in some way, and need the extra chance provided by the scheme. So far none has betrayed the trust placed in them.

"The big problem is that they are missing time from school. Catching up with that work is difficult," he says. "We have looked carefully at what is best for the individual. If this benefits 10 or so pupils a year that would be good. "

In theory, at least, the primary school pupils will know nothing of their tutors' past history, seeing only good role models. Mr Davies says: "They will be seen helping and assisting, well dressed and in charge - although they are always supervised."

While there has been some criticism from local Conservative MPs, Mr Davies believes every one has benefited. The teenage tutors feel wanted and able to achieve something, while the primary schools get help with reading.

Researchers from Birmingham University will be monitoring the programme and evaluating its work to see if it could serve as a model for similar schemes throughout the UK.

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