Big idea seeks sales pitch

29th November 1996 at 00:00
John MacBeath outlines the Prince's Trust plan to win friends for study support, the key to lifetime learning. Study support is a big idea with a name too small to contain it. It embraces everything from after-school homework clubs to summer universities, and covers a range of different initiatives. All of these derive their energy from the same compelling motive, that is, to help young people become more self-confident, self-directed, lifetime learners.

The most immediate task for the Prince's Trust, which has invested so much in the development of study support nationwide, is to find for it a more potent and exuberant title. A generous cash prize should be offered to anyone who can come up with one, because, as we are learning all too well in this market-driven sound-bite culture, small words are powerful shapers of perceptions and attitudes.

Whatever name we find to reinvent study support, it must reflect a big idea - an idea whose time has come. Study support is of profound importance at the brink of the millennium because of a knowledge explosion which has both multiplied and fragmented opportunities for learning. The more we learn about learning the less satisfied we become with the conventional wisdom of teaching, and the more absurd is the clamour for a return to an obsolescent pedagogy.

Learning is a subject about which we have probably learned more in the past decade-and-a-half than in the previous 200. It wasn't until 1981 that Sperry and Ornstein discovered the functions of the right and left brain. In 1984 Howard Gardner introduced us to the concept of multiple intelligences and only in 1996 did "emotional intelligence" enter the discourse. The fact that Daniel Goleman's book of that title should be in the top 10 bestseller list is itself a significant indicator of the public interest in learning about learning.

His book not only exposes the banality of much of the political rhetoric but challenges us to be more honest about what it is reasonable and realistic to expect of schools. It is less and less relevant to define the successful student in terms of his or her ability to absorb classroom teaching, and increasingly important to consider how we support learning which is neither teacher-directed nor context-bound.

The European Round Table of Industrialists reported in 1994 that "in nearly all European countries there is an ever-widening gap between the education that people need for today's complex world and the education they receive". Too many disillusioned young people drop out of educational systems through failure or rebellion, and work through with only minimal skills.

The success-to-failure ratio of schools has become a pressing policy issue both nationally and internationally. While schools have, in fact, maintained and improved overall standards and quality, they have been outpaced by the speed and nature of change, and by the decreasing shelf-life of the taught curriculum.

The successful student, Howard Gardner reminds us, is the one who knows how to use opportunities for learning which are distributed throughout his or her environment. This includes not only books and libraries, media and electronic information, but the learning resources of people - teachers, friends, family, mentors and employers. Thought is a collective phenomenon and learning is a social activity. Helping young people to become successful independent and interdependent learners is the most central task of schools, but it cannot be achieved by the schools alone. Too many young people in the United Kingdom are denied the opportunity to become lifetime learners because they are deprived of that extra spark of motivation and engagement with learning; as a consequence, they get less than a half-time education - only 15,000 hours.

Study support, perhaps better described as support for lifetime learning, has become a critical mediating influence for thousands of disadvantaged students in this country. It is now a feature of hundreds of schools and community study centres. Young people who do not have the benefit of support or help from parents, who do not have the space, the resources or the encouragement to succeed, have been offered a lifeline through study support - late afternoon or evening sessions, breakfast clubs, summer schools, or residential study weekends. In all of these different forms, study support is offering a lifeline to success.

Nonetheless, study support is an idea that still has to prove itself. It may be self-evident to those who run and attend centres that they offer good value for money, but policy-makers are moved by harder currencies.

That is why the Prince's Trust is funding a three-year value-added study which will document the specific benefits of study support and will identify what works and why. It is driven by the conviction that study support will only learn and grow if it is reflective, self-evaluating, and self-critical. Study support centres must have the tools to monitor, evaluate and plan for more effective learning and for more effective organisation of learning out of school.

The beneficiaries, as we know from best practice in study centres over the past five years, are not just the students who attend but teachers and schools as a whole. For teachers, they have provided a laboratory for investigating learning at first hand, free from the anxieties of control and demands of the syllabus. For schools, they have been levers of change in the culture, and catalysts for raising expectations.

A starting point for self-evaluation has been made with three authorities - Tower Hamlets, Merseyside and Sandwell. In each of these authorities, baseline measures are currently being explored and agreed. Measures include attainment and attendance, attitudes to school and to learning, self-confidence and self-esteem, personal goals and expectations. From this base it will be possible to derive a more robust measure of what is being achieved by study support over the three years of the project's life. The data gathered from this exercise will be authoritative and generative at a national level. The primary users and owners of the data, however, will be the people who manage study support day to day. Its essential value will be tested by its diagnostic and formative powers for them in monitoring, planning, re-assessing and improving provision on a continuing basis.

The project will draw on what we have learned from school improvement studies about the self-evaluating school, the importance of networking, the role of critical friends, and the management of change.

The baseline data in the trust's national project will be used as an integral element of an action-based improvement project to build bridges between the two key sites of learning - school and classroom, home and community.

It will also furnish the content for a code of good practice. Study support is a broad church and should continue to be so. Its breadth should help to keep it free from orthodoxies and heresies, rival cults and factions. But if it is ultimately to make a difference on a national, and even international scale, it will need to find the best mechanisms to share and pool knowledge . It will have to be a coherent and collaborative movement, pursuing a common goal.

The trust has a central role to play in this as honest broker. It is helping to bring on board a range of community, business and government agencies whose support is vital and whose own interests are served by the development of a skilled and enthusiastic workforce. No government can afford to ignore so powerful a force for raising achievement or for educational and social renewal.

Professor John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde.

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