The Prince of Wales has backed a scheme for turning lottery money into a nationwide scheme of hi-tech education centres for disaffected inner-city pupils.
His charity, the Prince's Trust, believes that after-school clubs packed with computers, plus teams of specially-trained students, can provide the motivating power that has eluded many urban schools.
It is bidding for Pounds 12.9 million from the Millennium Fund to help set up 160 study support centres in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast. This would be a three-year pilot project which the Trust hopes to build into a network of 1,000 centres after the year 2000, costing Pounds 150m, with Pounds 60m running costs.
Tom Shebbeare, executive director of the Trust, said the scheme would address "a very, very serious problem of under-achievement in our education system", eventually helping half a million pupils a year.
The Trust was advised by Professor Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London's Institute of Education, who said: "The study centres are not simply homework clubs. We want to go beyond that to develop a new level of study support. The centres will be an outstanding learning environment."
Each will be linked to a university and will be staffed by teachers and students. The students will be trained and paid Pounds 1,000 for a year's commitment to work a few nights a week. Teachers will receive the full professional rate.
The 160 centres will each contain 15 CD-Rom machines, capable of storing the equivalent of 15,000 library books. There will be full-time technicians on hand.
The total cost of the pilot would be Pounds 26m. The Prince's Trust is committed to raising Pounds 13m from local authorities, schools, universities and the private sector to match Millennium Commission funding.
Anne Sofer, chief education officer in Tower Hamlets, said: "We believe the scheme can do something to change the peer group culture so that it can become the smart thing to do to go out and work rather than being the smart thing to get out of the school as soon as you can."
Tower Hamlets has established after-school centres in each of its secondary schools, an initiative which, said Ms Sofer, has helped raise educational standards. "It has helped the sort of pupil who might be at risk of becoming disaffected."
Professor Barber said that he wanted to enthuse a large proportion of pupils who would not think of using public libraries for out-of-hours study. A study by Keele University found that 35 per cent of young people lack motivation.
Alan Evans, director of the education department at the University of Wales, Cardiff, said the plan would "combat ignorance, isolation and alienation. We want to abolish the constituency of the disappointed".
Kay Driver, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "It is an excellent idea. It's about time we paid more attention to community education."
The Prince's Trust argues that it can produce an increase of between 10 and 15 per cent in the proportion of pupils reaching five grades A-C at GCSE.