After-school study at a big football club? It does not sound plausible, yet as Carolyn O'Grady found out it's proving to be a winner.
Twice a week Claire Williamson (pictured), aged 14, leaves school and goes to Leeds United's gigantic stadium in Elland Road. She's not football-crazy, although she does like football. She goes to the stadium to do her homework; to practise her spelling, grammar and mental arithmetic on the computers; and to search the Internet and CD-Roms for material for her projects. Her present project is on Arsenal.
Claire is one of many young people attending Leeds United's Playing for Success project. This national scheme has been introduced in 40 Premiership and Division One football clubs and the Department for Education and Employment (DFEE) last month announced it would be extended to more football clubs and into other sporting areas later this year.
Funded by the DFEE, local authorities and football clubs, the scheme provides after-school study classes, usually lasting 10 weeks, for upper primary and secondary students to improve literacy, numeracy and IT skills and boost motivation.
The support centre of Leeds United, one of three clubs that piloted the scheme, has been going for 18 months. Open six days a week from 9am until well into the evening, it serves a group of 23 primary and three high schools in the Playing for Success scheme, and eight local primary schools and one high school in a scheme during school hours funded by the single regeneration budget. Twilight sessions for teachers are also provided.
The area of intense deprivation surrounding the stadium is a key target. "The kids around here have very little access to the best equipment and to role models," says centre manager Steve Smith. "We can provide positive role models through our tutor mentoring scheme, high-quality equipment and a high-quality experience."
The vast study centre is located under the South Stand and is equipped and furnished to a high standard by sponsors such as Packard Bell, Planet On-Line and IKEA. It comprises a cybercafe, with Internet, email and word processing facilities; an IT suite for wordprocessing and using CD-Roms; and a project room where children use RM Learning Systems' integrated learning system SuccessMaker. There are 17 computers, colour printers, a scanner and a broadcast-quality video camera.
Staff include a manager, two teachers, an administrator, a full-time technician and a tutormentor co-ordinator - the centre draws on volunteertutormentors from local businesses, colleges, universities and sixth forms.
"When children start we give them an intensive introduction to IT skills; how to use the Internet, send emails, use CD-Roms," says teacher Mike Cook. They do a carousel of activities including the Internet (in Playing for Learning children may look for information to support a school project); email use (using the Pen Pals website) and work on SuccessMaker. They also use CD-Roms and there is an independent learning session, when children are set questions and hunt the answers in books.
Writing and illustrating their own topics is another activity: they may write about a picture found in the centre's extensive clip art library, for example, or do a design project on an area of the club.
So far the centre's evaluation has shown pupils make real progress in mental arithmetic and reading; reading scores improved by the equivalent of six months for primary pupils and eight months for secondary. And a parents' survey confirms children also notice improvements - in skills and in confidence.
Teacher Elizabeth Silver brings a class from Ingram Road primary school. "We have the best attendance on Mondays (the day they come)," she says. "One child made 25 per cent progress on the study support scheme." She also found pupils act as peer tutors back in school, helping pupils with their IT and other skills.
One reason for the success is the thrill of being at Leeds United, of visiting the grounds and club premises, and occasionally meeting players. "It's the 'wow' factor," says Steve Smith. "It makes them feel special. They can take on a new identity, start afresh." But there is also the access to computers on a one-per-child basis.
Contrary to some expectations, girls match the boys in the scheme. You don't see the same profusion of football icons in the girls' work as in the boys', but the findings of the National Foundation for Educational Research show their results are equal.
"I didn't think it would be as good as this," says Claire Williamson. "I thought it would be sitting around doing our homework." Her friend Parminder Sooma, who enjoys the Internet most but also likes SuccessMaker, is also impressed. Parminder's brother has already been through the scheme:
"You could tell he made progress, so my mother wanted me to have a try as well." Both agree that they'll miss it when it's over.
Playing for Success