Beyond the call of duty

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Extra-curricular activities are gaining new recognition from school inspectors for raising achievement across the board. But in independent and state schools, they continue to rely heavily on voluntary commitment from staff, writes Douglas Blane. Why not let them count towards chartered teacher status?

Extra-curricular activities can transform children, letting them explore what they can do and gain confidence by succeeding as they stretch themselves.

"There was this boy who was really good at the guitar," says Robert Stewart, senior technician at Taylor High in Motherwell. "The first show he appeared in he couldn't look at the audience; he just stood there with his head down. The next year he was jumping around, diving off the stage and playing 'I Want to Break Free' with his teeth."

The confidence gained in the interim had made the difference.

This year's school show will be the most challenging ever, says Mr Stewart, who wrote the script, but he and Fiona Cannon, the principal teacher of music and drama, have no doubt the pupils will rise to the occasion. "If you have high aspirations you will achieve," says Ms Cannon.

"This kind of extra-curricular activity lets pupils be themselves and explore what they can do in a way that isn't possible within the curriculum."

As well as two full-scale shows a year, Taylor High offers trips to London, theatre visits, choir and band rehearsals, chess, football, netball, basketball, badminton, gymnastics, chemistry and supported study in a dozen subjects.

Depute headteacher Kathleen Sinclair is responsible for extra-curricular and supported study activities. "Our school offers a lot of activities and both pupils and teachers benefit from taking part," she says.

"If you ask people what they remember best about school, it will often be a relationship with a teacher who took them for a club or a visit. If all you've done when they leave school is educate them in the curriculum, then you have left nothing of yourself with them. And that's a shame."

State schools vary in the quality and extent of their extra-curricular provision. Taylor High is particularly strong, school inspectors noted earlier this year, commending the staff's "commitment to an extensive programme of extra-curricular activities and the resulting impressive range of pupils' achievements".

The commitment of the staff is all the more commendable because they are rarely paid for their efforts.

"If they choose to give time to extra-curricular activity, that's within their 35-hour week. They've already been paid for it," says a North Lanarkshire spokesman.

"Very occasionally you can be," says Maria McGraw, a physical education teacher at Taylor High. "I could have been for netball if I'd taken the juniors after school. But I already had a middle school group I wasn't prepared to give up just to get paid, so I take the juniors at lunchtime.

"Yes that's unpaid, but it doesn't bother me. I've never been paid for extra-curricular work, and I've done it for 20-odd years.

"When I was at school everybody who had an interest, an enthusiasm, a commitment, gave up their time so I could achieve what I was capable of. So now I do it."

Commitment from staff is no less essential in the independent sector, says Gareth Edwards, principal of George Watson's College in Edinburgh, despite the fact that some contribution is a contractual requirement in return for higher than national rates of pay. "There's an understanding that all staff will get involved, but so much depends on their energy and willingness to do so," he says.

"If you added up all the hours our staff give - and I don't mean just the teachers - it is still very much voluntary. The school simply couldn't pay for it."

Ms Sinclair says finding that kind of dedication has not been noticeably harder - or easier - in recent years. "Since McCrone, supported study is no longer paid, so that maybe dwindled a bit at first but it has picked up again. Extra-curricular activities are blossoming and we've had a lot of clubs formed in the past couple of years."

However, schools such as Taylor High and George Watson's College may be exceptional.

"In just about every sport, we are finding it more and more difficult to get good fixtures with teams from state schools," says George Watson's director of sport, Iain Brown.

"There are pockets of very good practice but overall there aren't enough people and there isn't the broad base in sports any more. I've noticed a big change in the past 10 years."

An ever-expanding curriculum and greater demands on teachers' time no doubt contribute to this. However, lack of recognition for extra-curricular efforts is also a key factor, Mr Brown believes.

"They are very much recognised in the independent sector, but I'm not sure that is the case in the state sector nowadays, which means that nationwide in Scotland we are struggling in sport."

One way to grant teachers due recognition could be for extra-curricular efforts to contribute to the chartered teacher programme, suggests Mr Edwards. "Organising a trip, galvanising a team, getting the best out of youngsters, these things must surely make a difference in the classroom."

Improved working relations with pupils are indeed a major benefit of extra-curricular involvement, say teachers and managers in both school sectors.

"It would be hard to imagine Taylor High without a wide range of extra-curricular activities," says headteacher Gerry McCormick. "They contribute very significantly to the ethos and identity of our school and bring an added dimension to relations between teachers and pupils, and indeed among the pupils themselves.

"One of the things we are about is helping young people learn the skills needed to form stable, successful relationships. Sport, the arts and cultural activities make an important contribution to that."

"They give the kids confidence," says physical education teacher Maria McGraw. "So we are aiming for mass participation."

Fiona Cannon, principal teacher of music and drama, says: "Activities don't need to be teacher-led: inspiration can come from the kids, much more so than in the classroom. There's a freedom to express creative ideas.

"Getting out of school exposes the kids to a diversity of talent and that raises achievement."

The pupils also appreciate the changed relationships with the school staff.

As rehearsals for Taylor High's ambitious show Jill and Jack's Excellent Adventure continue, Mr Stewart explains: "This is a highly technical show. We have some very nice equipment - radio mikes, sound boards, graphics equalisers, spotlights - and it's the tech team that makes it all work. It's not just a case of me telling them what to do. I say what effects I want and they go away and do it. It's all very much a team effort."

Fourth year pupil Jamie Creechan, the show's lighting technician, says the feeling of responsibility and respect the team gets from the staff is important. "You don't really get that in the classroom."

"When you are doing this they treat you like an adult and a friend," says camera technician Anthony Downie, an S4 pupil.

The confidence, leadership and self-reliance children gain from extra-curricular sport, outdoor activities, music, drama and public speaking are a major attraction of an independent school, says Mr Edwards.

"Often that's the main reason parents send their children to us."

Extra-curricular activities generate a "virtuous circle" that benefits pupils, teachers and ultimately the school itself, he says.

"Because the children enjoy these things, they are a joy to be with. Time and again when staff come back they say: 'The children were great, a credit to the school.' So it's not surprising that people want to volunteer."

One of the school's traditions he was implored not to tinker with on his appointment as headteacher in 2001 was the Third Year Projects, which see more than 200 pupils split into small groups to embark on pursuits all over Scotland. Now the story of these is told in Outdoor Adventures, a book which captures the spirit of inclusion and educational challenge that characterises the best extra-curricular activities.

"Many swots and rugby hearties happily found that there was more to life than books and scrummaging."

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