Reva Klein reports on a Prince's Trust-backed project that gives disaffected pupils a fresh outlook on school life.
By her own admission 15-year-old Sarah Graham is "not very bothered with learning". At school, she's been known for having an attitude and for being lethargic and listless. Today, her approach to school and life in general is more positive. "I'm a happier person. Sort of," she says with a begrudging grin.
Nathan Potts, 16, comes from Sunderland, like Sarah. And, like her, he hasn't been terribly enamoured of school. "I was badly behaved and found it difficult to sit still," he says. Now, for the first time, he's thinking about life beyond today. "I'm beginning to think about my future. I want to be in the police - or maybe a footballer." And while he admits that "I still wander around the classroom a lot", he sits down more readily.
What's got into these two? Their attitudes towards school, themselves and their place in the community have been, if not turned around, then significantly changed by a Prince's Trust project called xl. It's an approach to disaffection that has nothing to do with pupil referral units, pastoral support teams, detentions, exclusions - or, in fact, with school at all, except that's where it happens.
Instead of focusing on pupils' inability to fit into their one-size-fits-all schools, xl concentrates on building up disaffected Year 10 and 11 students' sense of their own worth. Through a personal development curriculum over two years, which combines learning activities, preparation for work, citizenship, community awareness and the development of social and emotional skills, it aims to motivate at-risk young people to want to succeed and connect with their communities.
The project is accredited by the Prince's Trust's Asdan xl award, a customised version of the Asdan youth award, which is similar to an NVQ. Those who complete the programme get a qualification in the three "wider" key skills of problem-solving, working with others and improving their own learning.
It's being used in 250 schools. And it seems to work. An independent evaluation carried out in 1996 showed that participants, all of them identified by their teachers as at risk of exclusion or underachievement, become re-engaged with learning. Most stick with the programme, 84 per cent achieve their personal goals, 80 per cent take all examinations they've been entered for, and more than one in two gain literacy and numeracy qualifications.
The positive effects linger, at least in the short term. Three months after completing the two-year programme, 42 per cent go into further education and 20 per cent find full-time jobs or enter youth training. Longer-range studies have yet to be carried out.
Teachers notice the difference. John Tinn, a maths teacher who has known Sarah Graham since she started at Sunderland's Pennywell school, and who is closely associated with xl there, says: "When Sarah came here, she was introverted and didn't mix well. She lacked self-esteem and, like many children, believed she couldn't make a difference in life. But at the xl club, she's being given the chance to come out of herself. Her social skills have improved. She has opportunities to experience success in new areas. She's more confident and engaged with what's going on around her."
Paul Barnfather, Sarah and Nathan's xl adviser, has found Nathan's attitude and punctuality much improved."He's developed a sense of responsibility because he wants to get on."
At a celebration of the completion of another year of the club, Sarah and Nathan meet up with 400 other xl club participants at Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield to listen to loud music, take part in workshops and be congratulated by boxer Prince Naseem, footballer Dion Dublin and actors Martin Clunes and Stephen McGann. Sarah and Nathan, brimming with confidence, cheerfully and assertively ask for autographs. They are at ease, and radiate a belief that, yes, they deserve acknowledgement for doing things - and doing them better than they'd have thought possible before they joined the club.
One of the clues to xl's success lies in its distance from the school curriculum, agenda, culture and staff. So any problems the student is having with the school as an institution are left behind. Pupils have no notoriety following them into the club, no reputation to uphold or distance themselves from.
The club is run by facilitators, usually from outside the school. This helps to create an informal climate in which students feel less defensive.
Students come to the club after being invited by the adviser. Names are put forward by the school as being in need of intervention.
They meet for at least three hours a week in groups of no more than 20. Half of this takes place within school time and half during lunchtime or after school. Some students go to their regular English, maths and science classes, and for the rest of the time do xl and their vocational courses. Some are exempted from particular subjects while others miss out on non core-curriculum lessons, in careful liaison with the school.
Some clubs form committees, with all members taking roles that help develop their competencies. Every student agrees to take on a range of activities and projects that will develop their skills, and that are designed to fit in with their abilities and needs. For instance, Sarah took part in a Set 2000 project, which involved science, engineering and technology. Among other activities, she made a T-shirt, did cookery, designed a website and produced a newspaper with the assistance of the Sunderland Echo.
She says: "It was great. You learn more when you're actually doing things. You don't get to do things in school."
Another component of the programme involves each group organising a community project. Last year, Sarah and her group at Pennywell decided to organise a sports day for the nursery next door. It involved everything, from approaching the school to phoning around to raise money, planning the event, liaising with senior nursery staff and overseeing the games.
Nathan's xl group from Castle View school organised the Christmas party of a nearby junior school, seeing to the games and entertainment. They raised money from the local basketball club.
The psychological effects of reaching out to the community are, believes the Prince's Trust, worth foregoing certain lessons for. "I'm missing out on Spanish and French," says Nathan, "but my parents are proud of what I'm achieving."
Julie Chalk, programme manager of Education Business Connections, which operates the xl clubs in eight schools in Sunderland, says: "We're working with kids who are staying in school because of xl. They're learning things that are relevant to the outside world, things they know they'll need after leaving school. And they're learning social and communication skills that they'll need for the rest of their lives."
A typical session might involve:
* A cup of tea or a cold drink with the students and a quick chat to set an informal tone.
* A team-building activity to warm them up. Students might create a dream together, or talk about the kind of job they'd like to do or look at university prospectuses as a catalyst for making a collage on aspirations.
* Making a life map of milestones over their first 15 years and discussing where they want to be after the next 15. "It's about raising their aspirations," says Paul Barnfather, "moving from the concept of shop worker to shop owner."
* If work experience is coming up on the school curriculum, Mr Barnfather will help prepare them for it. They'll discuss the social skills required.
* After half-term, the push is on to do a community project, planning and executing it with guidance from Mr Barnfather.
* When exams are looming, the group concentrates on study skills - using time effectively, planning timetables and revision.
* Clubs try to do an annual excursion, for which they plan and raise funds.