Summertime and the learning is easy

10th August 2001 at 01:00
Summer schools are not simply about organised activities, Douglas Blane writes. Even Indiana Jones never had so much fun and adventure as a boy.

The summer activities for children that are being organised around the country these days by education authorities provide a wealth of raw material for the perennial back-to-school essay "What I did in the holidays". Even a bare list of what is on offer sounds exciting - rock-climbing, abseiling, horse riding, dancing, drama, detective work - and with a little embellishment the least imaginative participants could tell a story as action-packed as an Indiana Jones adventure.

However, providing material for autumn term essays is not the point of the exercise. Unlike Easter schools, which tend to be firmly focused on preparing pupils for exams, summer school objectives vary from one to another along with the gamut of pursuits, from academic to creative, vocational, remedial, recreational and downright hedonistic.

A prominent feature in many places is the provision of opportunities for disadvantaged children, be they a taste of activities not normally available to them, a preview of secondary school or the world of work, an awakening of the notion that higher education is a realistic goal or simply the novel and pleasurable experience of learning in a relaxed environment. But seeking to attract such youngsters and actually doing so are different things.

"If you simply call for volunteers," says Norrie McDonald, Falkirk's out-of-school learning co-ordinator, "what you get are the kids who are up for everything. You don't get the underachievers, the disaffected, the ones lacking in confidence or the invisible kids who don't make much noise or get into bother but could do with a wee boost. You don't get the ones who would benefit most from summer school."

On the other hand, focusing in any overt way on recruiting such children risks stigmatising them, limiting the appeal and benefits of the activities and lowering the recruitment levels. So what is to be done? The answer lies in diplomacy, the art of letting someone else have your own way.

"What you say to the kids and parents is different from what you say to the staff who are doing the organising," says Mr McDonald. "I tell the parents it's a great opportunity to extend their children's experience, build their confidence, get better at doing things and meet new people.

"I tell the staff that they should make their priority the kids who are underachieving, lacking confidence or suffering the effects of disadvantage in any way."

Other authorities in areas of deprivation tell a similar story of gentle arm-twisting of children who have not initially volunteered but whose social skills and confidence would benefit from the experience of summer school and of mixing with more self-assured peers.

"On the surface it's 'Hands-up, who wants to go?'," says Alison Cameron, North Lanarkshire's raising achievement policy adviser, "but behind the scenes we try very hard - and our teachers are pretty good at it - to encourage the kids who are most in need of support."

Problems don't end when the right children have been recruited: anything but. Disaffected underachievers would not figure high on anyone's list of ideal vacation companions, so success in persuading such children to attend summer schools carries with it a significant risk of failure when they get there. Sending badly-behaved children home, while occasionally necessary, is a last resort after a variety of strategies to avoid this.

The organisers of the relatively new but highly praised Summer Academy at Strathclyde University admit they don't know why it is so successful. One component is doubtless their focus on a specific type of teenager, not just in terms of age - about to enter the fourth year - but also in terms of behaviour. Underachievers are welcome, the main aim being to provide such young people with an intensely stimulating experience that will permanently raise their levels of motivation. Disruptive pupils are not.

"It just wouldn't work," says director Christine Percival. "The format of the course, with its series of challenges carried out by small groups of kids, means that participants need to be pretty good at working as a team."

In Falkirk, on the other hand, summer school staff are advised that "it's about inclusion and changing attitudes and behaviour". The authority has compiled a comprehensive list of behaviourally challenged youngsters to target for recruitment and staff are briefed by an "inclusion co-ordinator" who provides detailed information on the best methods of coping with individual children.

Perhaps the most effective strategy for avoiding problems of disruption arises from creating the kind of supportive and enjoyable environment that is rarely practicable during term-time. Bad behaviour in school is often a ploy used by children to divert attention from their lack of understanding or inability to do what the teacher has asked of them.

It is amazing, says North Lanarkshire's Ms Cameron, what a taste of unaccustomed success can do for the behaviour of children. "We run literacy summer schools aimed at Primary 7 kids who have real difficulty accessing the curriculum. We get an author to come and talk to them and we help them produce nice finished efforts using a computer. They have one-to-one mentors and they produce a magazine that looks great and makes them proud of their work.

"When we began these schools the teachers anticipated it was going to be hard to motivate the kids and that they'd need to have all the fun activities - the clowns and the juggling - to keep them there. But in reality they've almost had to force them away from reading and writing because the small group attention has been fabulous for the children; it's just what they needed."

Scotland's "biggest ever package of summer activities for young people" was devised this year by Edinburgh City Council, supported by the national youth charity Young Scot. Building on smaller projects in previous years, the council tried to address the reasons most often given by young people for not getting involved in organised activities: costs, transport, times and lack of information.

The community education service set up events all over the city, 50,000 leaflets were distributed to schools, museums and leisure centres and some of the most innovative workshops - theatre improvisation, film production, break-dancing, website design, broadcasting and mountain biking - cost a mere pound;1 a day.

In many of the smaller Scottish authorities the emphasis in the summer is on sport. Angus, for example, offers subsidised coaching in football, hockey, tennis and athletics, as well as a range of sports for people with disabilities, from orienteering and horse riding to sailing and rock-climbing.

In East Renfrewshire, courses are run for children and parents at the highly regarded Log-in Internet cafe, which is said to have even been praised by Microsoft chief Bill Gates, there is a variety of arts and crafts activities and football coaching is laid on for girls and boys. There is also Tots Camp, in which sports training is provided using the Dutch system, which means gentler, less competitive games with the emphasis on developing skills, co-ordination and teamwork.

Besides summer activities at all their special schools, East Ayrshire has a wide-ranging mainstream programme in arts and music, as well as dance, theatre, industry-standard computer graphics and Gaelic.

"I was at a tiny primary school today called Little Mill," says quality development officer Dave Farrow, "where the roll is only 35 kids - 28 of them had signed up for summer school."

Money to support the authorities' increasingly ambitious summer programmes comes mostly from three sources: the Excellence Fund, the New Opportunities Fund - both of which have components specifically aimed at supporting out-of-school learning - and the Greater Opportunity for Access and Learning with Schools programme, which targets clusters of schools from which entry to higher education has traditionally been very low.

Significant funding has been made available from these sources: Falkirk recently received pound;295,000 from the NOF for its summer schools aimed at raising attainment and inclusion. However, costs can be high: at pound;200 each, the mentors alone cost the Summer Academy at Strathclyde pound;15,000 a week. As a result, a range of individuals, paid and unpaid, tends to be recruited to help out. Teachers are needed for the more academic pursuits but for other activities they are not necessarily a local authority's first choice. "Teachers are no' cheap," commented one canny adviser.

The dark-haired young man waving his arms around and jumping up and down in a red sweater outside the office windows of the Summer Academy at Strathclyde has obviously forgotten the first rule in the handbook for mentors: "Always try to look confident and relaxed, no matter the situation."

Unlike many of the 75 mentors recruited to provide "motivation, encouragement and support when the going gets tough" to the pupils attending the academy from secondary schools all over the west of Scotland, this is his first time in the job. Looking relaxed when you are completely lost is a skill that only comes with age or experience.

The academy has existed only since 1999. "What has happened," says director Christine Percival, "is that the mentors - a lot of them student teachers - come back again and again. This means that as well as learning how to work well with the kids, they get involved in planning and redesigning the challenges along with the lecturers."

The format of the two-week course is a series of increasingly demanding challenges, which the youngsters, who are all about to embark on their fourth year at secondary school, have to tackle while working together in small groups. There is one very specific aim - "to motivate students at a critical juncture in their education" - but a variety of methods are employed to achieve it.

Besides the core programme of challenges with a maths, language, science or technology flavour - such as construction problems, writing to a deadline, putting on a fashion show or using psychology and forensic science to solve a crime - there is a support programme which offers extra help in writing, calculation or study skills, as well as recreational options in music, art and dance and access to the university's superb sports facilities. There is one scheduled visit to the Glasgow Science Centre and an afternoon of Highland games, during which everyone takes part in cultured events such as flinging the jessie and hooping the haggis.

Pupils from GOALS schools attend the academy at no cost, but the participating authorities - 12 this year, from Argyll to South Lanarkshire - can and often do send children from other schools at a heavily subsidised pound;100 a head. This year children from 124 secondary schools are taking part.

The 10-day course, with the intervening weekend off "for recovery and positively no homework", reaches a highly charged climax on the final Friday, when those students who have successfully come through the challenges - more than 90 per cent of those who enrol - take part in a graduation ceremony attended by guest speakers, representatives from university and industry and, most importantly, the children's parents.

"It's an emotional day for us all," concludes Ms Percival, "because the youngsters are very proud of what they've achieved and they have all made new friends and been through a lot together. They don't want to leave and there are always lots of tears - not all of them from the girls."

It is not only the children who are special at Hillside School in the once-thriving coal-mining town of Cumnock in East Ayrshire. It takes a special type of adult to work with youngsters who have complex learning difficulties, especially during July and August when many teachers are enjoying a well-earned break.

The difficulties of teaching youngsters aged five to 18 with limited sight or hearing, who may not be able to walk or talk, are obvious, the rewards perhaps less so. But although harder to quantify than exam results they are no less real. And whether it is Nicole's wriggling excitement as she is carried into the soothing, ever-changing dreamworld of the multi-sensory room, Emma's squeals as she listens to the tinkling tune of an electronic tambourine or the quick flash of a smile that comes so readily to so many of the little faces, the children's pleasure is mirrored in the expressions of their teachers and carers.

"Summer school is different from term time, which is a lot more structured and timetabled," explains project leader Kate Rennie. "Some of the more expensive equipment is put away in case we break it, but it's amazing what you can do with paint and paper and bits of building things.

"Then there are jigsaws and books and computers with touch pads for children who don't have fine motor skills. And there's storytime and videos and lots of music. And of course there are the outings."

The availability of the school bus means outings could be organised on a daily basis, but children and teachers usually need a relatively quiet day in school to recover from their expeditions, which may be to the seaside, a cinema, outdoor education centres, an airport, castles, computer centres or adventure parks.

"We have one adult to two children," explains Ms Rennie, "and in the induction phase we organised the kids into groups we thought would be compatible. The adults in each group decide with the children where they want to go. Today a wee group went down the street to buy a cake because tomorrow is one of the boys' birthday."

Outside in the playground the rain is keeping the less mobile children away from the wind chimes, bird feeders and gazebos in the sensory garden, where giant smiley flowers, leaves and caterpillars that have been painted on the yielding surface by a local artist peek out from between tubs of brightly coloured pansies and shrubs. Around the corner, the poor weather seems to be having no effect on a group of high-speed, crash-helmeted youngsters on tricycles.

"We're not like those big jessies at Wimbledon who stop playing every time a wee drop of rain falls," comments a bedraggled-looking teacher. "Children love water and summer school for these kids is all about giving them what they want."

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