John Cairney reports on an access programme that is reaching a quarter of schools.
"WE know we make a difference" might well become the motto of an access programme which this year has attracted participation from a quarter of Scotland's secondary schools.
The Summer Academy @ Strathclyde began a year ago as a joint initiative between Strathclyde University and a number of west of Scotland authorities. It offers a fortnight's programme of activities and events to motivate and support 14 15s to achieve their full potential at school and is part of GOALS - Greater Opportunities for Access to Learning with Schools - an initiative to promote wider access to higher education in the west of Scotland.
This summer a total of over 800 pupils from 105 schools, an increase of 45 from last year, are attending the academy at the university's Jordanhill and John Anderson campuses.
There are four two-week programmes and each programme is in three parts. An academic component involves groups of 10, supported by a mentor, undertaking a series of increasingly complex team "challenges", culminating in a "mega-challenge" lasting two and a half days.
The support programme allows participants to identify their strengths and weaknesses and receive assistance in areas such as writing, maths and study skills. There are also structured sessions of recreational activities ranging from sports and music to drama and computers. At the end of the fortnight there is a "graduation ceremony", which this year for the first time is being organised by the participants themselves as part of a "Logistics Challenge".
The role of the mentors, who are university students, is "absolutely critical", Bob Munro, the academy's associate director, says. "They are the people who meet the youngsters at the beginning and are constantly with them throughout the fortnight. They help in every aspect of the academic programme and the various challenges and provide on the spot support if the students have difficulties with any particular skills."
Twenty-five of this year's 52 mentors are doing their second stint and have been involved in reappraising the different challenges. The mentors all undergo "rigorous training", Mr Munro said, and are selected for their "people skills".
These qualities seem to have impressed Laura Smith, of Holy Cross High in Hamilton, who says: "The mentors are more like friends than teachers."
Laura, aged 15, was taking part in one of the off-campus "Science in the Streets" events at Glasgow athedral and the nearby Necropolis. One of her mentors is Emma Wilson, a former pupil of Stonelaw High in Rutherglen who is doing a PhD in the department of immunology at Strathclyde.
She took time off from talking about the 19th century divines, scientists and body-snatchers interred in the Necropolis and highlighting the use of the lichens on gravestones as indicators of air pollution to praise her 21st century students. "They are surprisingly interested and enjoy being outside. Science can be very standoffish and it is good to try to relate it to everyday events. It is very rewarding to see them being so keen about it all."
Emma adds: They are very keen on the gory stuff."
Cheryl Scoular, from Grange Academy in Kilmarnock, had no complaints either. "This is better than being in a classroom all day. We're outside doing things and still learning."
Christine Percival, the academy's director, says: "We know we make a difference because of the children's attitudes and because of what teachers are telling us when the children return to school. For example, how enthusiastic they are, how well they perform in the classroom and how they answer more questions in the class."
As well as the continuing evaluation of the curriculum by the academy staff, the university invited an independent review from Cambridge Policy Consultants, a bold move after only one year of the project.
Although the results suggested that "relatively few pupils felt that the academy had helped them to become substantially better at schoolwork", many participants had a greater understanding of the "point" of schoolwork and the academy had an impact on individuals' aspirations.
Ms Percival said: "This evaluation has demonstrated that the Strathclyde Summer Academy does impact on pupils' soft skills - motivation, team-working, communication and overall confidence. It also provides individuals with a greater awareness of what higher education is all about. There is no reason to suggest that this will not feed through to better Standard grade performance."
She believes it is the academy's "uniqueness" that will ensure its continuing success. "No other summer school looks at the children prior to coming to the programme, works on their strengths and weaknesses while they are in attendance and then follows up afterwards to find out how they are prospering.
"For the next year we will be looking closely at how they do in Standard grades and Highers and if they go on to further or higher education."