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Wider cast of the net

Ambitious out-of-school programmes are taking extra-curricular learning to a new level

The Birmingham Children's University was set up by a group of forward-thinking educationists. This charity offers out-of-school academic, leisure and creative opportunities. After a decade the idea has gone national, with projects running in 26 other areas, but the Birmingham programme remains in the forefront, with a staggering 10,000 children a year passing through its Saturday schools, holiday programmes or intensive master classes.

Classes - which are free and open to all seven to 11-year-olds - take place in schools, libraries, museums and community centres, and are taught by schoolteachers and others with the skills and enthusiasm to make learning fun.

A-level student Leanne Jhalley teaches German. "I come from a big family, so helping younger kids comes naturally. We try to make it so they enjoy it." And they clearly do, as children come back to the university year after year, and their younger siblings follow.

Children enjoy the chance to concentrate on one task - painting, building a technical Lego model, writing a story - for longer than they can in school. The relaxed classes can be life-changing. One Children's University graduate is studying medicine at Oxford after discovering hands-on science in a Saturday morning class.

Children might study an unfamiliar subject, such as Japanese or sculpture, and win medals for their achievements. They mix with pupils from other schools and learn to relate to adults in a different way from school.

Teachers are paid about pound;20 an hour and the cost of classes is about pound;2.60 per child, per hour. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including the DfES, the New Opportunities Fund and school and LEA affiliation fees.

Anne Wood, director of the Children's University in Birmingham and nationally, says the key to success is finding the right teachers."Without them," she says, "you've got nothing."

ONES TO WATCH

Education Extra The original out-of-hours activity organiser

Kid's College A new Children's University initiative in Birmingham

University of the First Age Another Birmingham-based educational charity

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