After-school cool

30th July 2004 at 01:00
Teenagers are being given room to set their own after-school agenda in a scheme that puts their needs first, reports Steven Hastings

What do teenagers really want to do after school? Hang out around the bus shelter or stand on the corner by the chip shop? Sit around on their own watching children's television? Apparently not. The pound;2.5million Make Space campaign, launched in 2002 by the charity 4Children and supported by the Nestle Trust, now has more than 300 out-of-school clubs for 11 to 16-year-olds, and is proof that many teenagers want somewhere safer and more interesting to go.

"They need a meeting spot. And if you don't give them one, they'll find one, usually on the streets," says Anne Longfield, 4Children's chief executive. "But that doesn't always suit the local community. And when you ask the young people, it doesn't suit them either. They don't choose these places because they're rebellious - they choose them because they've got nowhere else. They'd much rather have somewhere comfortable with facilities and things to do."

Tapping into what turns on a teenager is at the heart of the campaign. "The clubs have to be places they want to go to - there's no way, at their age, they can be forced into it. It's a sophisticated negotiation process and, ultimately, the teenagers decide where they'll spend their time," says Ms Longfield. Make Space offers grants of between pound;5,000 and pound;15,000 for anything from music-making equipment to extra staffing. But clubs wanting to take advantage of the funding have to do more than just fill in a few forms: they have to commit to a blueprint that has been devised by young people themselves. As well as a chill-out space where members can relax and chat, clubs must provide an activity space for sports, arts and events and a quiet zone for surfing the net or doing homework.

So does signing-up to the scheme mean having to jump through too many hoops? "It's a formula, but it works," says Charles Claxton, assistant head of Archbishop Michael Ramsey technology college in the south London borough of Southwark, which last year won a Make Space grant of pound;15,000 over two years and now offers sport, music and dance, DVDs, games, books and recording equipment at its AMR.TC club. "Following the guidelines has been helpful rather than constricting. It forces you to evaluate and be self-critical."

He says the focus of the campaign has helped his school do things differently. "Historically, our out-of-hours provision had been curriculum based - a chance to catch up on homework or get extra help. But Make Space forced us to think again, so that what we offered was based on the needs of the students rather than the needs of the school. It was a radical leap."

To date only 18 per cent of the funding has been awarded to clubs based in school, but Make Space expects this figure to rise as more secondaries begin to offer out-of-hours provision. "Clubs in school are convenient and can be appealing," says Ms Longfield. "Some schools have created beautiful spaces, transformed them with a bit of creativity and involved the young people in the process. And rather than putting children off school by making them spend more time there, it helps them see it in a new light. A club can be an effective way of helping reluctant students re-engage with school."

At Archbishop Michael Ramsey, the club has created a base room, distinct from a classroom, with its own outdoor area, picnic tables and a small, bright garden tended by club members. Sixth-formers are trained and employed as helpers and a student steering-group is involved in all the decision-making. Even sporting activities are kept separate from school-based sessions, so members are offered, for instance, table tennis or volleyball, rather than games they did in PE earlier in the day. The effect has been more than just brightening up a drab corner of school.

"Overall attendance and punctuality have improved," says Mr Claxton. "The children have a greater sense of ownership. They can see that the school is doing something for them, so they give back more in return." The club, which offers a drop-in breakfast service to around 160 pupils and "members-only" after-school sessions for around 60, is expanding this year to include a summer school for the first time. And next year, numbers are expected to continue rising.

"Lots of clubs have been waiting for a scheme such as this," says Ms Longfield. "They've felt that what they've been offering hasn't really captured kids, but they haven't been sure what to do about it. We provide the funds and the model for change." As well as cash, successful applicants to Make Space - and each round of funding is oversubscribed by four times the amount of money available - get access to a dedicated helpline, quarterly newsletters and a range of support and development seminars and materials. "There's not always a lot of experience in this area.

Traditionally, after-school provision has been about early years, or specific groups such as those at risk of offending. But 80 per cent of mothers with teenage children work and 60 per cent of teenagers say there's not enough for them to do, so we need provision for everyone."

Current funding for the Make Space scheme is only for three years, but Ms Longfield hopes the existing clubs will act as a "demonstration model" of what can be achieved, ensuring a long-term commitment from the Government.

The aim is to have 3,000 clubs by 2015. "Teenagers face an increasingly difficult path from childhood towards adulthood," says Longfield. "The least they deserve is a place to meet and a chance to express themselves."

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