Opinion: big idea seeks a large name

20th December 1996 at 00:00
The Queen Elizabeth Centre in London was the venue chosen by the Prince's Trust recently to launch its national evaluation project. Trevor Macdonald compered the event, attended by a gathering of luminaries including Lord Callaghan. The show was shamelessly stolen, however, by Fiona Robertson, a fifth year student from Bellshill Academy who convinced everyone present,including Robin Squire the education minister, that supported study is the big idea of the 1990s and that it was born in Scotland.

Supported study is a big idea with a name too small to contain it. It embraces everything from after-school homework clubs to summer universities and covers a range of different initiatives. All of these derive their energy from the compelling motive of helping disadvantaged young people become more self-confident, self-directed, lifetime learners.

The most immediate task for the Prince's Trust - which has invested so much in the development of study support nationwide - is to find it a more potent and exuberant title. A major cash prize should be offered to anyone who can come up with one, because, as we are learning all too well in this market-driven soundbite culture, small words are powerful shapers of perceptions and attitudes.

Whatever name we find to reinvent supported study, it must reflect its potentially profound importance at the brink of the millennium. There is a knowledge explosion which is both multiplying and fragmenting opportunities for learning, and the more we learn about learning the less satisfied we become with the conventional wisdom of teaching. And the more absurd is the clamour for a return to an obsolescent pedagogy.

Learning is a subject about which we have probably learned more in the past decade and a half than in the previous two hundred. It wasn't until 1981 that Sperry and Ornstein discovered the functions of the right and left brain. In 1984 Howard Gardner introduced us to the concept of multiple intelligences and only in 1995 did "emotional intelligence" enter the discourse. The fact that Daniel Goleman's book of that title should be in the top 10 bestseller list is itself a significant indicator of the interest in learning about learning.

His book not only exposes the banality of much of the political rhetoric but challenges us to be more honest about what is reasonable and realistic to expect of schools. It is less and less relevant to define the successful student in terms of his or her ability to absorb classroom teaching, and increasingly important to consider how we support learning which is neither teacher-directed nor context-bound.

The European Round Table of Industrialists reported in 1994 that "in nearly all European countries there is an ever-widening gap between the education that people need for today's complex world and the education they receive. Too many disillusioned young people drop out of education systems through failure of rebelling and work through with only minimal skills".

The success-to-failure ratio of schools has become a pressing policy issue both nationally and internationally. While schools have, in fact, maintained and improved overall standards and quality, they have been outpaced by the speed and nature of change, and by the decreasing shelf-life of the taught curriculum.

The successful student, Howard Gardner reminds us, is the one who knows how to use opportunities for learning which are distributed throughout his or her environment. This includes not only books and libraries, media and electronic information, but the learning resources of people - teachers, friends, family mentors and employers. Thought is a collective phenomenon and learning is a social activity.

Helping young people to become successful independent and interdependent learners is the most central task of school education, but it cannot be achieved by the school alone. Too many young people in the United Kingdom are denied the opportunity to become lifetime learners because they are deprived of that extra spark of motivation. They get less than a half-time education - only 15,000 hours.

Supported study has become a critical mediating influence for thousands of disadvantaged students in our country. It is now a feature of hundreds of schools and community study centres. Young people who do not have the space, the resources or the encouragement at home, have been offered a lifeline through study support - twilight or evening sessions, breakfast clubs, summer schools or residential study weekends. In its various forms it is offering them a lifeline to success.

Nonetheless, it is an idea that still has to prove itself. It may be self-evident to those who run and attend centres that they offer good value for money, but policy-makers are moved by harder currencies. That is why the Prince's Trust is funding the Quality in Education Centre to conduct a three year value-added study.

It will document the specific benefits of study support and will work together with study centres to develop tools to monitor, evaluate and plan for more effective learning out of school. The project is driven by the conviction that supported study will only learn and grow if it is reflective, self-evaluating, and self- critical.

The beneficiaries, as we know from best practice in study centres over the past five years, are not just the students who attend but the teachers and schools as a whole. For teachers they have provided a laboratory for investigating learning at first hand, free from the anxieties of control and demands of the syllabus. For schools they have been levers of change in the culture, and catalysts for raising expectation s.

The project will link centres in Scotland with centres in Tower Hamlets, Merseyside, Southwark and Sandwell. In each of these, baseline measures will include attainment and attendance, attitudes to school and to learning, self-confidence and self-esteem, personal goals and expectations. From this base it will be possible to derive more robust measures of what is being added by supported study over the three years of the project's life.

The primary users and owners of the data, however, will be the people who manage study support on a day-to-day basis. Its essential value will be tested by its diagnostic and formative powers for them in monitoring and improving provision on a continuing basis.

The project will draw on what we have learned from the improving school effectiveness project about the power of self-evaluation, the importance of networking, the role of critical friends, and the management of change. The data will be used by schools and centres as a starting point for an action-based project to build bridges between the two key sites of learning - school and classroom, home and community.

It will also furnish the content for a code of good practice. Supported study is a broad church and should continue to be so. Its breadth should help to keep it free from orthodoxies and heresies, rival cults and factions. But if it is ultimately to make a difference on a national, and even international scale, it will need to find the best mechanisms to share and pool knowledge. It will have to be a coherent and collaborative movement, pursuing a common goal.

The trust, and the QIE Centre, have a central role to play in this as powerful advocates and honest brokers. The movement is already proving too powerful a force for an any government (incoming or outgoing) to ignore. Robin Squire's last words as he exited the conference hall were "I'm just off to tell my fellow ministers".

John MacBeath is director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University.

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