Sea, sand and... study skills?
Okay, so the first night of the weekend by the seaside was not what most people would call educational. Some of the children had never been in a lift before - never mind stayed in a hotel on the Brighton seafront - so going up and down endlessly from the basement to the top floor had a certain attraction. Others spent the evening running in and out of each other's rooms, watching telly, taking baths and looking out the windows at the pier glittering away against the shiny black sea. For some, it was their first glimpse of the English Channel.
But, after that first night, the 140 Year 9s from Hampstead School in Cricklewood, north London, get down to the serious business of studying things that most other children don't get a chance to learn. And, to sweeten the pill, their work sessions are carefully interspersed with organised activities designed to bring them together in collaborations that are creative - and fun.
The weekend has been organised by special needs teacher and head of Year 9 Athy Demetriades, her sixth such trip. In previous years she has taken Year 11, but she wanted to catch them younger this time. What she is offering is something all children need to succeed, but which is oddly - and sorely - lacking in the national curriculum: study skills.
Judging by the number of young people on the trip, the demand is certainly there. The group is mixed in every conceivable way, with an equal number of girls and boys, a range of abilities and socio-economic groups, some refugees, some with a variety of special needs including emotional and behavioural difficulties (including nine with statements), and others best described as "ordinary". All are there to work a 12-hour day on Ms Demetriades's specially designed programme of mind-mapping, revision strategies, memory techniques, time and stress management and note-taking.
"Teachers and parents endeavour to help children to succeed academically," says Ms Demetriades. "But unless there is explicit teaching to explain the psychology of learning and to demonstrate how to use mind-mapping skills, how to remember things, how to revise and work to schedules, how to debate, howto do mental maths and how to managestress, there's no guarantee that they'll acquire these skills."
Her teaching is a model of how to engage young people who'd rather be playing video games on the pier. In the session on revision and memory technique, for instance, the approach is interactive and fast. The group is divided into five smaller groups and, after going over the guidelines on aides-memoire, each s given a diagrammatic explanation of how volcanoes erupt. Then they are told to create a song that will help them remember the process. My favourite is a song sung to the tune of "Blue Suede Shoes" that three girls gamely perform:
"One for the money
Two for the show
Three for a volcano
that's about to blow.
Ash and lava
and it just don't care
Magma chamber, crater, steam and gas
Volcanic bombs that hurt when they brack (sic)
Don't step on my blue suede shoes."
It's a safe bet it'll never make the charts, but the lyrics will stay in the children's minds for as long as they need to know them.
In Athy Demetriades's scheme, the hours students put into the lectures and seminars are punctuated by physical and creative activity. In the evenings, they all take part in ballroom dancing and a disco, aided by two sixth-formers who deal with the music and also act as classroom assistants to those who need help.
The most memorable of the daytime activities is the environmentally themed art installation that each group has been asked to create on the beach. The skills Athy wants to develop are collaboration, negotiation and communication - while having a great time in the process. It works on all counts. Ordinarily shy children take responsibility, others more accustomed to being bossy take more co-operative roles. And students who have never had anything to do with each other create something from their shared imaginations. One group finds a dead seagull and decides to bury it and create a monument to it using cloth, seaweed, sea sponges and sticks. Another makes a giant blue starfish out of bamboo canes. And another starts off designing a massive sea anemone by wrapping bendy wires around cloth strips which then somehow become transformed into a castle with fireworks (seaweed and plastic strips) erupting from the top, rippling in the sea breeze. There is a mermaid, too, luxuriant seaweed radiating from her head.
On their return to London, students and teachers speak enthusiastically about the experience, both in and out of the learning sessions. Other teachers remark on the new cohesiveness of the year group. As well as helping these students take their national tests and GCSEs, Athy Demetriades feels confident that the skills they have learned over the past three days will stay with the students for a long time to come. "These are lifelong learning skills that will take them beyond school. And while they're in school, I think there has to be a place on every school's timetable for every student to be given the opportunity to learn how to study."