Will the summer schools for literacy strugglers make an impact? Frances Farrer reports.
Peers School lies just inside the Oxford city boundary, on the edge of the Blackbird Leys estate, which gained notoriety in the late 1980s as the haunt of car-burning joyriders.
The closure of a large part of Oxford's motor industry robbed children growing up on the estate of an assured future. But Peers has made sustained efforts to offer its pupils more in life than the chance of doing handbrake turns on the estate's wide streets. It is highly regarded for its extra-curricular initiatives to raise pupils' commitment to learning.
So it comes as no surprise to learn that the school is the only one in the region to be invited to join the Government's literacy summer schools project. Nationally 29 schools will hold literacy schools this summer. This much-trumpeted initial pilot scheme will attempt to see if pupils leaving primary school with (below average) level 3 language skills can be raised to level 4 competence.
Education Extra, an education charity that funds after-school activities, will administer the Pounds 300,000 scheme and provide literacy advisers for each school. Nationally, each pupil is likely to be in school for 50 hours over three to four weeks. Schools will use the energies of older pupils and classroom assistants as well as teachers, and children will be enticed to join the scheme with promises of fun rewards such as trips to theme parks.
Dr Kay Andrews, of Education Extra, says Peers was chosen to host the project in Oxford because the headteacher, Bernard Clarke, "is a man who delivers". Mr Clarke believes the causes of reading difficulties - around one in two Peers pupils have them - are manifold. He blames the increasing use of television and computers as child-minders or entertainers, and the fact that many homes have few, if any, books and the adults don't read.
For this reason he hopes to involve whole families in the scheme. It is too early to say precisely how, but within a week of Education Extra approaching Peers several families asked if they could take part, showing the high level of interest. "Lots of parents will be glad it's happening," says Mr Clarke.
Places on the scheme will be divided between two middle schools, Lawn Upton School at Littlemore, and Wesley Green School at Blackbird Leys. Fifteen families from each should be offered a chance to take part from a current shortlist of 30 per school. The pupils involved will be those with learning difficulties that are not so bad they need statementing for special educational needs. "We will most likely offer places to young people who would benefit, and who also have family support," says Mr Clarke.
But what is on offer? Getting pupils into school during the summer holidays will be a challenge. So far the school has decided to concentrate the 50 hours into two weeks, August 4-15. The students will produce a newspaper and visit the Oxford Mail, which may also print their work. The staff believe literacy can be made stimulating and the original notion that pupils would have to be tempted with sports and IT has been almost abandoned. There will be storytellers and collaborative reading. Some materials will come from Education Extra. The Pounds 9,000 grant is tight but adequate, says Mr Clarke.
Peers has a reputation for finding imaginative solutions to pupils' problems. It once prescribed a mural project as the cure for a maths-phobic graffiti artist. To do the mural he had to work out the quantity of paint, the scale of the picture and the size of the artwork, all of which required maths.
Teacher enthusiasm has been strong from the beginning. Six or seven asked immediately about taking part. Even a couple of students from the dreaming spires end of town volunteered.
A similar story is told by Ruth McBride of Walker School, Newcastle upon Tyne. Its project will run over five weeks with a different focus each week. She says: "I could have staffed it twice over." The school will be doing IT in week one and photography in week five, with listening games, groups and debates in between. "I don't know why we haven't done this before," she says.
Mr Clarke is not prepared to predict results. He stresses the project is a pilot that will leave out many children who need extra help. He says it is a useful beginning, but people may be wrongly led to believe the educational deficits of years can be made up in a few weeks during the summer vacation. "Poor literacy is a symptom of other issues," he says. "We're talking above all about overcoming a sense of failure."
But the project could be the start of a potentially enormous effort. "I hope summer schools will be a feature of the scene for all ages in Oxfordshire and nationally," he says. "I want to see lifelong learning as an accepted fact. "