Hard option

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Headteacher Tim Bartlett is strict about the seating arrangements for his sixth-formers - "It's hard chairs, for hard work" - but he does allow them to eat and drink while they study.

His anti-armchair policy does not always go down well with students at his Northamptonshire school, particularly those studying English who believe it is impossible to read a novel unless you're lounging around.

"They want beanbags," said Mr Bartlett who has done away with the sixth form common room at his 1,300 pupil comprehensive. "But I have resisted, even for those lovers of fiction. In here, it is significantly not soft seating."

Here is a #163;600,000 sixth form centre which opened last September at Campion School, Bugbrooke. The two storey-building provides eight geography and religious education classrooms on the first floor. Downstairs is the domain of the 183 sixth-formers.

The centre has 3,000 reference books, each security-tagged and grouped into subject zones, 14 computers which are linked to the remainder of the school, a silent area, snack machines and an all-day diner.

And while the students may not have been happy with Mr Bartlett for scrapping their much-loved comfy chairs from their old common room, staff were upset initially at the thought of pupils being allowed to eat and drink inside a study area.

"I won the argument when I told them we didn't forbid children to eat and drink while they were doing their homework."

Mr Bartlett believes schools have got to re-think the way they operate for sixth-formers because teenagers' life-styles have changed dramatically.

Most pupils now have a part-time job right through the sixth-form, something that was unthinkable a decade ago and unusual even five years ago. "That means their study has to be more effective and their school day has to be devoted to study. We have to be flexible for them to study whenever they can. We have to alter significantly the student's perspective of when and where they can study."

The sixth form centre at Campion is open from 8am to 9pm and during the holidays. Claire Surman, a 23-year-old newly qualified teacher is the centre manager. She is on hand from 8.30am to 4.30pm and throughout the holidays to assist students with their work. Teachers supervise from 4.30pm to 6.30pm and then adult education staff are persent in the centre until 9pm.

It operates a timetable of cleaning which allows study to continue uninterrupted - a silent, walk-through at the end of the school day, picking up litter, emptying the bins and doing the surfaces while the noisy, vacuuming takes place in the morning from 6am.

At the moment, students tend to stay no later than 5.30pm - but as Mr Bartlett points out that is still two hours after the official end of the school day. However, they and their parents are beginning to grasp the new flexible opening hours.

Students with access to cars, either their own or their parents' once they have returned home from work, are now picking up their mates to take them back to school in the evenings. And, said Mr Bartlett: "The response from parents to this place has been one of relief. If, say, students arrive home

saying they have completed all their work, now can they go out and socialise, parents can be reasonably certain they are telling the truth. "They know the school is organised for work. The design of the place says while you are here, you are here to work. The common room was saying sitting around with your feet up is okay, this building says it is not."

Katie Sutch, 18, agrees with this: "In the common room you just really slobbed out, you didn't seem to have any extra oomph to get to work. This place improves your motivation because you've got everything to hand."

During the lunchbreak Katie and her friends chatter and flick through The Times university guide and a student guide. They are all planning to go to university. Elsewhere in the centre, which seats 120, a girl sits silently reading at a table where others are eating. A boy gets up and goes to work on his own at a computer, two other girls have been in front of a terminal virtually the whole of the one hour lunchbreak.

Julia Forster, 18, has a Saturday job in Boots. "It is much easier to work in here because you have the topic zones and everything is in the same place, but we do miss the comfy chairs."

Not everyone has been won over completely. Kathryn McNeill and Laura Wicks have recently given up their part-time jobs to concentrate more on the school work and they would like somewhere really quiet to work.

"You can definitely get a lot more work done here because you have got a lot more resources but because it is open plan you get a lot of noise. I usually work at home," said 18-year-old Kathryn.

Her friend Laura, 17, added: "The problem with the last sixth form centre was that it was a common room and not one of these. Now we have got one of these and not a common room. "

At 4.30pm, Katie and about 10 other students are still in the centre. She has two part-time jobs - one working behind a bar once a week, the other in a shop - to raise money to go on to university (Loughborough, she hopes) in the autumn.

The centre has been a godsend to Katie because she finds it hard to organise her time. "The great thing about it, is that it is here when you need it, not just during the day. I'll probably be here until 9pm tonight. School work is a nightmare at the moment, everything is just coming together at the same time."

Campion has a good staying-on rate and does not consider itself in competition with the three nearby further education colleges - Northampton, Moulton and Daventry - but, instead, offers a complementary curriculum.

About half of its students stay on at school, 30 per cent go into FE and the remaining 20 per cent into employment or training. One of the spin-offs from the new centre is that the school's staying on rate next year will increase by about 10 per cent.

With money following pupils and sixth- formers worth around #163;3,500 each, that is good news for the school which is facing a #163;200,000 cut on its #163;3 million budget but Mr Bartlett insists that is not the reason Campion opened the centre. "It was a pleasant surprise."

Since the centre has opened up, staff have noticed that students are more likely to deliver their work on time, and that much more of the work is presented having been originated on information technology - because all students now have access to computers.

Many students at this school are "pickers" or "packers" in local factories - either picking goods off shelves to supply machine workers or packing goods for delivery.

Nicki Wood, aged 16, is a picker at a car factory, working every night after school. The centre means his mum worries less that his studying is suffering because of his part-time job.

"I wouldn't say the staff make you work, but when you come in here you do as much work as you can. With me coming to the centre my mum doesn't worry - well, not so much."

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