THE Scottish Executive has signalled that it wants out of hours learning to be part of the normal work of schools.
Jack McConnell, Education Minister, told a conference in Bellshill last week that one of the challenges now was how to mainstream such activities. The programme had helped boost self-esteem and motivation.
"What is happening should be integrated into the whole school ethos and also involve the parents," Mr McConnell said. "The challenge is to make schools either improving or excellent or both. The enthusiasm for improvement is there, but the best is yet to come and I'm looking forward to that."
Mr McConnell has asked HMI to evaluate a range of programmes being supported under the Executive's excellence fund, such as out of hours learning, and he repeated his determination to measure what is being achieved and what is successful. But the general conference consensus was that out of school learning, in whatever guise, is here to stay.
The Executive is giving pound;27 million over three years to fund projects which currently involve more than 250,000 pupils in 1,700 schools. The lottery-backed National Opportunities Fund is injecting pound;24 million for projects over three years and that involves 1,277 schools.
Michael O'Neill, director of education in North Lanarkshire, which organised the conference, made a plea to Mr McConnell for excellence funding to continue after next March, when the money is due to run out.
Out of school learning should be reflected in the Government's national priorities, Mr O'Neill said, and it should not be "bolted on" to the work of schools.
Bert Laar, an educational consultant and former HMI in England, described out of school leaning as "the single and most valuably important enterprise happening in schools today". Mr Laar supported the view that out of school hours activities helped to build up self-esteem and self-confidence, the lack of which was at the heart of underachievement.
But he warned:"It has to be richly and properly provided. We must not make do and mend. We must give every child what is offered in private schools, and enlarge horizons. We must not replicate failure."
The quality of schools in Britain, Mr Laar said, has never been better, and teachers are capable of responding to the challenges if the proper provision is there.
But one participant in a conference workshop expressed fears that the post-McCrone agreement may be "the death knell" for the programme. A senior manager in a North Lanarkshire secondary, who did not wish to be named, said: "If the activities are held within the 35-hour week, staff could feel that is an imposition and resist the programme. If it is held outwith the 35 hours, staff may well feel that they are already doing enough and not take out of hours activities to the same extent as at present."
Kevin Brown, director of the Scottish Study Support Network, cautioned against creating low-achieving groups.
"If we are targeting children with low self-esteem, what are we doing by grouping them together? Perhaps we are confirming their sense of low esteem," Mr Brown stated. "This is the opposite of social inclusion. We should target by being inclusive and raise self-esteem by putting them in the company of others."
Mr Brown raised the prospect that in future non-teachers could undertake study support outside school, with parents more involved.