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Virtually perfect reality of extra classes on Saturday

It's 11.15 am on Saturday and 10-year-old Olu Mibola is learning about "Mr Bunsen's burner".

During the week Olu is a pupil at Dog Kennel state primary school in east Dulwich, south London. At the weekend he attends a Saturday school at Dulwich College, the independent school.

The project, launched five years ago, is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. It is run by the charity Southwark Community Education Council and provides extra lessons for around 70 pupils in one of London's most deprived boroughs.

Dulwich College gives its classrooms and laboratories - equipped and maintained to a standard which would be the envy of the state sector - free. The teachers are from the state and independent sectors.

Olu says: "The teachers teach you really well and you learn new things, " then gives a detailed account of how a Bunsen burner works. Before he started attending the Dulwich college classes, Saturday mornings were spent at the library, seeing friends or at home "but this is much better".

Some of the seven primaries involved send pupils who are highly-motivated learners; others choose youngsters who are educationally deprived.

Each Saturday morning in term-time there are classes in maths, English, science and drama. There is no syllabus, so the staff can teach what they like. Project director Edna Mathieson says this fact plus the class sizes of just 15 provides an "almost perfect" teaching environment.

"The schools involved in the project are really good schools," she says. "We are not talking about sink schools. They are doing their best with children with all sorts of difficulties."

More than 40 different first languages are spoken by primary school pupils in the borough. Many come from single-parent families, or economically-deprived backgrounds. Edna Mathieson's evaluation reports show the same results each year - the children's self-confidence increases, schoolwork improves in at least one subject, usually maths and they find it easier to settle at secondary school.

Josie Spanswick, head of St Anthony's primary in east Dulwich, agrees: "It has been beneficial for the children involved because it increases their self- confidence and self-esteem."

The Saturday school has an annual budget of about Pounds 18,000, raised through grants and sponsorship from large companies.

Next year, Southwark Community Education Council plans to develop a family literacy scheme, working with Saturday school pupils and later their parents as well. It will target white, working-class boys with poor literacy skills and children who do not speak English as a first language.

The literacy scheme will be based at James Allen's Girls School and Alleyn's School, two independent schools in Dulwich linked to Dulwich College.

Sixth-formers at JAGS already help at a special needs unit at Dulwich High School. A high proportion of JAGS pupils have assisted places, many are from families where English is not the first language.

"It's not your typical posh independent school," says head Marion Gibbs. "I think there is a feeling that the children who come here are very privileged. There are fabulous facilities and we would like to share them."

Already the Dulwich project has attracted attention from other London independent schools. Edna Mathieson believes the scheme could expand further: "We would like to set up a loose network of independent schools willing to open their facilities to the wider community."

As Labour is committed to abolishing the Assisted Places Scheme and possibly reviewing the charitable status of independent schools, some might view concern for the wider community with scepticism.

But Marion Gibbs says: "I wouldn't want people to think we were doing this because of the election. We are obviously worried about the Assisted Places Scheme and have been building up our own scholarship fund.

"I am personally very concerned about the great divide in society. In an area of London like this you do see the haves and have-nots up against each other. It's time we began working together. I see this as a model of what we should be doing with the resources that we have."

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