Not just for egg heads

8th May 1998 at 01:00
As students sit their Higher grade exams, some are coming to them with new confidence and a chance of better grades, thanks to free Easter holiday tuition and helplines. Eleanor Caldwell reports from North Lanarkshire.

As is the way with many good ideas, inspiration for a scheme that has changed the outlook of hundreds of children came to Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education, while reading a newspaper in relaxed mood at a poolside onholiday.

Seeing advertisements for A-level revision courses and their fees, he hatched the idea "on the back of a bar bill" of offering Easter revision courses to Higher pupils in North Lanarkshire schools, providing a week of subject tuition and supported study sessions with free transport and lunch.

First run in 1997, the study schools take place in three further education colleges: Motherwell, Cumbernauld and Coatbridge, with around 150 places in each. Applicants, selected by their schools, have to meet certain criteria, such as living in home environments that make it difficult to study effectively, or having no library ticket or no access to a computer. Borderline pupils in danger of not achieving a target grade or of failing are also included.

Beyond the academic, O'Neill stresses that the Easter schools are also designed to raise pupils' self-esteem and confidence and to give them an opportunity to ask questions and improve exam techniques in a new environment, with new teachers and classmates.

To this end, Easter schools were set up in partnership with the local further education colleges. In addition to accommodation and use of facilities, the college atmosphere is integral to their success.

A student from last year's Easter school talking to the 1998 co-ordinating group admitted to "not being very keen to come to a college". But by the end of the course, he was pleased because he had "made new friends, found out more about college and felt more mature - like an adult".

Richard Mullen, principal of Motherwell College, is enthusiastic about the advantages of having 150 youngsters in the college over Easter and sees the partnership as an excellent "marketing tool".

"I like this activity in here. It demonstrates that the college never closes. While it's not part of our role to determine what goes on in the Easter schools, we accommodate whatever we're asked for. Following Easter schools last year, some pupils came back as students." He was also glad to welcome teachers into the college, many of whom had "never been in the place".

Core subjects English and maths were available to students every day, with options to attend classes in biology, chemistry, physics, French, history, geography and modern studies throughout the four-day period. (Easter Monday was a holiday.) Sessions lasted one-and-a-quarter hours and took the form either of lessons taught by a subject specialist or study sessions during which a subject teacher could offer individual advice.

There was, O'Neill says, no difficulty in recruiting teachers. "We were looking for those who not only had expertise in the subject and a good track record, but who were able to adopt a more relaxed and informal approach to their teaching which not all staff can."

Within the college environment, Easter school classes adopted a seminar style and students were relaxed but focused. Chemistry teacher Elizabeth Gillick, from St Aidan's High in Wishaw, says it took a little time to establish a more college-like class, where students did not need to put up their hands to ask or answer questions.

She feels the real benefit of the more informal approach is that "students realise just what a privilege they're getting". From the teacher's angle, she says "it was great, we could just be ourselves because there was never any hassle in class".

Jamie Johnstone, a student from Braidhurst High, feels he has gained confidence from the English class, where the teacher went over report writing. "We did it at the start of the year, and I'd forgotten how to do it. I think it's good having a different teacher, because she picked out different parts of the course and taught it in a new way".

Claire Lewis, Laura McCabe and Monica Mooney, all pupils at St Aidan's, agree that it was valuable to hear "other people's different opinions" about familiar work, but say that the Easter school also made them get out of bed in the morning, study and feel that they could do the work.

Sharon Smart and Angela Maynes from Braidhurst High and Sharon Morton from Clyde Valley High, found that simply learning different methods of note-taking for the modern languages listening exam gave them confidence in exam technique. Their teacher, Robert Dalzell from Abronhill High in Cumbernauld, was also teaching languages in the Easter school at Coatbridge College.

In modern studies, teacher Michael Bradshaw from Columba High chaired a discussion on aspects of the health service and got normally reticent students speaking out in a heated debate on quality medical care, in which he played devil's advocate. Alison McGuckin, a student at St Aidan's, really enjoyed being able to speak out and has decided she wants to become a journalist.

The Easter school at Motherwell College is co-ordinated by Alan Carrol, assistant headteacher at Clyde Valley High, together with Ted O'Neill, schools liaison officer at the college. Although the administration involved considerable work and intruded upon Easter holidays, Carrol found it "very rewarding".

Both co-ordinators agree that the new link between schools and the college has given students a more mature attitude towards studying and provided those who are considering further education courses with a valuable early insight into college life. Michael O'Neill says there has been much positive feedback from senior staff in schools involved in the selection and organisation of the Easter school and class teachers say that pupils who attended the four-day course came back after the holiday with new enthusiasm and a more positive approach to their work.

Evaluation of last year's exam results for North Lanarkshire Easter school students showed a significant improvement across a broad range of Higher subjects particularly in English and maths, with students' marks rising on average by 7 and 8 per cent respectively.

Student responses were also very positive, with many saying that they felt more confident as a result of the course, and better prepared to study independently.

Parents have been very supportive of the initiative, asking for an increase in the number of available places in the future and for new subjects such as music and art to be incorporated.

The Easter schools form part of an overall drive to raise achievement in North Lanarkshire. Each of its 26 secondary schools already has a supported study programme offering twice-weekly study sessions run by school staff.

"The Easter schools have really been a culmination of the supported study programme. Ninety per cent of pupils attending study sessions throughout the year have also attended an Easter school," says O'Neill.

As an additional service for North Lanarkshire pupils, a telephone helpline in English and maths started on April 20. The Monday to Friday evening service is run by teachers "on call" via a freephone number.

O'Neill hopes that this will provide Easter school students and others with additional pre-exam support. He says he is "also now encouraging schools to do their own Easter courses in school - perhaps for fourth-year pupils".

Back at the Easter school in Motherwell College, students in a physics study session, when asked why they had given up four days of their holiday, agreed that they had come "to see if it could make any difference at this stage".

One young man said the 49 per cent he got in his prelim made the decision for him - he is now confident that he could "maybe even get a B"

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