Plenty to celebrate after all

4th July 2003 at 01:00
They said it would never take off, but the University of the First Age has been a great success, says Tim Brighouse

Not many of you will know this but this week has been designated "out-of-hours learning week". It is a chance to celebrate the remarkable success of a movement which, seven years ago, would have been unthinkable.

But it is also time to sound a warning that lack of funds could put its future in jeopardy.

I well remember the stir of excited disbelief with which the vision of the University of the First Age was greeted when it was launched at a Midlands conference in 1994.

"Good idea but it will never get off the ground," was the verdict. And so it might have been without the funding from the national lottery and standards funds and pump-priming from local and central government.

Now the UFA has a growing presence in 36 local education authorities and hundreds of secondary schools, which have realised its potential to motivate the learning potential and behaviour of the early teenager.

It has been the same with its primary school equivalent, the Children's University, which has tapped into the thirst of older primary children to acquire a new skill - in activities such as chess, photography, dance or poetry-writing.

These two ventures, with their subliminal message that all youngsters should see university as within both their reach and grasp, had their origin in the extraordinary energy, skill, imagination and flair of educators in Birmingham.

And they found plenty of kindred spirits across the country, including the summer university in Tower Hamlets and Education Extra - one of the brainchildren of Open University founder Lord Young of Dartington, which has been a rich source both for ideas and fundraising.

There are three important implications of these diverse initiatives. First, independent research into the UFA can point to gains in test scores and GCSE grades once youngsters have passed a certain threshold in out-of hours extra learning.

Whether it is the time or the new study strategies they acquire that is the key ingredient, we do not know.

Secondly, the professional development programme of the UFA and other initiatives has seen teachers and community educators alike eagerly devour the possibilities of a brain-based approach to learning (for example, brain gyms). There is also the practical application of preferred learning styles and audits of talent using, for example, Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligence.

At a time of what can seem like Gradgrindian central prescription, teachers and learners have both remarked on how enjoyable and creative it has been.

A study of Office for Standards in Education section 10 reports into successful schools shows frequent mention of the beneficial impact of UFA programmes generally, and "super learning days" in particular.

Thirdly, peer tutors and mentors, who form such an important part of the best out-of-hours initiatives, have brought significant benefits. So many of the best programmes have connected participation with either bespoke courses to train youngsters to act as peer mentors, tutors or counsellors in their own schools, or in after-school learning itself. In doing so, they have given invaluable help to teachers and other staff in their work with younger pupils while increasing their own learning.

This development offers the promise of shifting peer group culture in a positive direction. We have always known its importance but the recent book from Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption, underlines it. She rethinks the nature-versus-nurture argument which makes us all worry about being a good-enough parent.

Far more important, she argues, is the environment, particularly the peer group culture.

Out-of-hours ventures are particularly helpful to the silent majority of teenagers who might otherwise succumb, out of boredom and peer pressure, to the competing excitement of gangs, crime and drugs or the many commercially-promoted activities that too often fill their time.

Hopefully civil servants are aware that next spring both the lottery funding and the standards funds for out-of-hours learning stops. If that were to happen it would be a catastrophe, particularly in inner cities.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools and former director of education for Birmingham

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