Nadene Ghouri visits a residential literacy and numeracy scheme that is even more absorbing for its participants than a European Cup match
When it came to the question of whether the North Tyneside Literacy and Numeracy pilot had been a success, there could be only one benchmark. Football.
Slap bang in the middle of the week-long residential course at the High Borrans Centre on Lake Windermere, Newcastle United were due to play a crucial European Cup match. And 30 ten-year-old pupils from Shiremoor central and middle schools in North Tyneside were horrified at the thought of missing it.
Maths teacher Sue Dixon explained the next day: "Football is life for the pupils - and for me too. They were aghast when we told them High Borrans didn't have a TV. But the match was last night and not one of them has mentioned it or tried to find out the score. The are so engrossed in the work, they've completely forgotten about it. That was one seriously crucial test."
The experimental scheme was devised by North Tyneside education authority in response to the "whole business of raising standards and basic skills".
In an intensive programme the pupils spent every morning and evening on rigorous academic study, beginning straight after breakfast at 8am and finishing before bed at 9pm.
In the afternoons came the fun bit. High Borrans manager, Eifion Jones, had the challenge of devising some unusual outdoor activities to complement the classes.
When the children read Charlotte's Web, the story of a spider who lives in a barn, he took them to a cobweb ridden barn on a working farm. When they read Foxbusters, about a wily fox, he took them looking for tracks in the woods. When a morning was spent on phonics and vocabulary, the children went walkabout with local storyteller Taffy Thomas.
Mr Jones said: "We helped to bring the texts to life. By doing so you can offer a much richer literary experience. With the Foxbusters afternoon, for example, they learnt to stalk like a fox. Surely that can only enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the book."
The scheme certainly seemed to have done something for 11-year-old Robert. The enthusiasm on his face was clear as he proudly announced: "Hey miss, I've read five books this week, my reading level has gone right up."
Indeed, at one point Robert was so enthralled by the pages of James and the Giant Peach that he was oblivious to the local TV news cameras panning in for a close-up inches away from his face.
This was not the first time High Borrans had offered curriculum-tailored programmes. A few years ago Eifion Jones became all too aware of the need to modernise or face closure as traditional outdoor activities lost popularity after the Lyme Bay canoeing disaster. By offering thematic courses in just about any curriculum topic, the centre has ensured it is fully booked until well after 2000.
The 30 pupils were chosen as those needing extra help in order to reach the required standards for their key stage 2 national tests next year. North Tyneside literacy adviser Barbara Jordan, who helped write the programme, said: "It's important to recognise that these are not failing pupils. Rather they are carefully hand-picked as those who have the potential to do better and who we thought would respond well."
Back in school the same children will continue to receive extra tuition and close monitoring for the foreseeable future. Ms Jordan said: "We all have high hopes for this initiative and want to see it expand, but it is only by recording the children's progress carefully and comparing it with that of their peers that we'll be able to assess its true, long-term value."
The six teaching staff who gave up their half-term said they found the scheme useful. Shiremoor English teacher Tony Dewison said: "The study programme has been more rigorous and intensive than anything we get chance to do in school. The chance to have a captive audience and test out new and sophisticated study skills has been amazing. We all saw this as a real opportunity to improve our teaching skills. And personally, I know I've learnt a lot."