The evening I visited the Chapeltown and Harehills Assisted Learning Computer School in Leeds there were two other visitors. They were there from the Leeds Multicultural Education Consultancy and Advisory Service. Their concern was the underachievement of black children, and they were looking for answers. They had come to the right place.
For 10 years, the school has been performing what might seem an almost impossible feat, persuading young people in this rundown area to spend one evening a week, often two, plus some of their weekends, studying English, maths, science and word-processing to complement their work at school.
It is based in modern premises provided by the local authority. The lessons are an unusual mix of traditional and hi-tech. They are often very structured, follow national curriculum guidelines and "talk and chalk" features a lot, but computers are the primary method of instruction. Every pupil sits at a computer and uses sophisticated software, including CD-Roms.
The school was set up by Brainard Braimah MBE, an infectiously enthusiastic teacher. Brought up in Ghana, west Africa, he came to England for postgraduate work and set up his own printing business. At the same time he volunteered to help in a centre for unemployed black young people. It was here that his idealised view of English education was shattered. He discovered that his students were leaving school with no qualifications and without basic numeracy and literacy skills: "I didn't believe that any kid born here could fail - with all the resources there were."
Low expectations and lack of black role models were at the root of the problem, he concluded. He had also become alarmed at the amount of television watched by children; he worked out that one nine-year-old was viewing 51 hours a week. His calculatio ns also told him that children spend 100 hours a week outside school; he wanted to see some of that time used to further their education, to prevent, in areas like Chapeltown where hope and jobs are at a premium, the drift towards crime.
Braimah established the school with money from a government task force set up following the Chapeltown riots in 1981. Funding comes from the Leeds Training and Enterprise Council and Leeds City Council, with charities and businesses also contributing and parents if they can afford it. The aim was, and still is, to provide support throughout most of the students' school careers, from 7 to 19.
It was an instant success, with pupils and parents queuing at the door from day one. There is still a long waiting list. Pupils are selected after an interview with parents, but the school gives priority to those from large families, particularly single-parent families.
More than 400 black, Asian and white children use the centre. From 4 to 6pm they can come to do their homework and projects, with free access to the computers and support from black or Asian tutors. From 6 to 8pm, there are structured lessons in at least two subjects: English, maths, science or word-processing. Upstairs is a state-of-the-art science lab, equipped through Leeds University.
There is a lot of individual help. At school many pupils fear asking questions and letting on that they don't understand; at CHALCS, questions are encouraged. Occasionally they will use a CD-Rom or the Internet. At the end of the evening they are given homework, which is marked rigorously.
The range of software is wide. Brainard Braimah looks for open-ended programs that enable students to log on and be monitored individually: "I prefer programs which encourage discovery, rather than those which are very didactic."
The Internet is important. "IT can give children so much access to information that half the time they know things teachers don't know," he says. "It is possible for a kid here in the UK to communicate with a kid in South Africa and make up his own mind about his situation. He doesn't have to rely on the media or teachers."
It is hard work. Brainard Braimah calculates that most of the pupils are doubling the amount of time they put into a subject. But the results are good. More than 80 per cent of the under-14s passed the RSA in computer literacy last year; 15 passed A-levels, three achieving four As. In total, there were 15 As, 10 Bs, three Cs and 14 Ds.
A recent National Council for Education Technology investigation into the effects of IT on motivation found that pupils at CHALCS use IT in almost every lesson while, in their secondary schools, only half of them ever used a computer. Using IT, said the report, enhanced students' sense of achievement and their self-esteem. Four in five primary-age pupils at the school said IT would improve job and higher-education prospects.
Brainard Braimah tells the story of a man who brought in his reluctant son, who wanted to drop out. "Then, at 13, he realised that he could get his teacher's attention by being good as well as being bad, and he started to really work." Recently the young man graduated from Manchester University and came back to thank his teacher and mentor.
* The Effects of Information Technology on Students' Motivation, NCET Sales, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV1 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416669. Price #163;5
* CHALCS, Tech-North, 9 Harrogate Road, Leeds LS7 3NB.Tel: 0113 262 3892