An inspired idea from Manchester's education chief has put GCSE revision on a restaurant menu. Elaine Williams joins a group of learners who are soaking up study with rice and naan
A grey drizzle clothes Manchester, but the inviting smell of garlic, ginger and spicy marinades lifts the spirits of hungry customers pacing "curry mile", the line of restaurants along Rusholme's Wilmslow Road.
The Sanam Sweet House and Restaurant is one of the most traditional of curry houses. It serves no alcohol and has a prayer room for its many Muslim customers. Waiters in crisp white linen direct you, with a nod upstairs, to the capacious first floor restaurant. Up here platters and cutlery are piled ready for service.
But this evening's youthful customers won't tuck in just yet. The girls from Levenshulme high school, though sitting around dining tables, are scrutinising exam papers, intent on GCSE revision in maths, all three sciences and English. The girls are loving it; enjoying the sociability, the chance to chew over revision problems with friends as well as female tutors of their own generation, and a meal at the end of it. They arrive at 6pm, study for two hours and then break for supper between 8pm and 9pm.
Taxis are on hand to take them home, essential to ensure parental support - all paid for by the city's education authority.
The scheme, Food 4 Thought, is now in its second year and set to expand across the city. It was devised by Mick Waters, Manchester's chief education officer, who funded it himself last year from fees earned by speaking at conferences in his own time. He wanted to do something to support struggling youngsters with GCSE revision, to boost those on the CD grade borderline, and to target those for whom revision would be difficult because of home circumstances or because they had disengaged from learning.
Mr Waters, who is moving on to become head of the national curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is known as a lateral thinker and has been passionate to create a learning culture in a city with massive social and economic deprivation. He says the strength of Food 4 Thought lies in its "relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere" and also in giving pupils "a chance to work with people from a university background as an insight into where learning can take you".
This year the city council has agreed to pick up the tab and extend the scheme to other parts of the city, including Withenshaw, where revision will take place in another curry house.
Levenshulme prides itself as a "high-value" school. But with a catchment that's notorious for its social deprivation and street crime, achievement in exams is a constant struggle. Last year 37 per cent of girls received five GCSE passes and many come from homes where there is no tradition of going on to higher education. Pupil confidence has to be worked on constantly, says headteacher William Skelding, who attends the twice-weekly Food 4 Thought sessions on a rota with his assistant heads. His students, he believes, appreciate the pampering as well as the chance to work with older peers. "The girls feel valued, and they are listening and working better than they do at school."
Zeenat Azmi, 19, on a gap year before studying English and linguistics at Manchester University, is a former pupil of Altrincham grammar and is taking a group of five Levenshulme students through some English and science. She wishes Food 4 Thought had existed when she was at school:
"Being in a small group you learn so much just talking things through."
Shamima Akhtar, 16, says it's difficult to find the time to revise at home "but here you can discuss things, get new ideas".
Although 20 pupils were invited in writing to attend the Sanam sessions, another 20 have petitioned to attend. Last year 20 boys from Burnage high, Levenshulme's neighbouring boys' school, were invited to attend revision at the Sanam and although only nine started, 86 were turning up by the end, including some of their friends from Manchester's independent grammars.
Mick Waters says many of the boys, mainly of Asian origin, had never been to a restaurant before. "I thought going to a place like the Sanam would be second nature to them, but many of them were timid about coming in because it was a new experience." The scheme was extended from 10 to 12 weeks and no one was turned away. One quarter of them achieved higher than predicted GCSE grades, some moving from Bs to A*s and Ds to Bs, and all but one went on to further education. Christine Greenhalgh, an assistant head at Burnage, says the scheme is a "phenomenal success". "It provided such a sense of cohesion among the boys, they were all willing to help each other and to work, and that carried over into school."
Gordon Sutton, Manchester's 11-19 curriculum innovations manager, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org