Education: With a little help from their friends: Learning is easier when your teacher is a teenager. Simon Denison visits a school where peer tutoring is getting results

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ONE OF the best ways to encourage pupils to learn, as some schools are now finding, is for other children to teach them. Children can sometimes learn more from each other than from a teacher because, the argument goes, being of a similar age, a 'child tutor' may have a more instinctive grasp of a 'child tutee's' learning problems than an adult teacher.

Many schools have experimented with peer tutoring over the past five years, but few have used it for so long, or on such as scale, as Challney Girls' High in Luton. There it is used to teach reading. Eight out of 10 of Challney High's pupils come from Asian families, with English as their second language. Peer tutoring was introduced in 1989 because many girls were arriving at the school at the age of 11 with English reading ages of only seven or eight.

The scheme has expanded every year. Now 160 girls - nearly a fifth of the school - are involved, half of them teaching and half learning. Tutoring is voluntary, and there is a long waiting list of girls keen to offer their services.

According to Maureen Horne, the senior teacher, it has proved extremely successful and has now become an essential part of the school's teaching programme. 'You need to be a good reader if you want to learn any subject, but there isn't time at secondary school to give dedicated reading instruction. Peer tutoring is the only way we can solve the problem,' she said.

Four days a week, first thing in the morning, groups of about 60 children gather in the library for 15 minutes. Each tutor, aged 15 or 16, sits down at a table with her individual tutee, aged 11 or 12, and a book. Three teachers are present, in case they are needed, but for the most part the girls simply proceed without instruction. The room hums with the sound of girls quietly reading aloud.

The tutors, who have all had elementary teaching instruction, look over their tutee's shoulder, cajoling, correcting, and writing down 'problem' words in a notebook for the younger girl to take away and study. At the end of the session, the tutors check for comprehension.

Safena, Sophia and Samila, all 12, have been tutored for two years. Each one has grown to trust her tutor, and believes she has benefited from the process. 'I couldn't read at all when I started, now I read well. The tutors can explain things in our own (first) language if we don't understand them,' said Safena. 'They never tease us,' claimed Sophia. 'I want to be a tutor myself eventually,' enthused Samila. 'I really enjoy it.'

Many of the tutors also benefit, according to Mrs Horne. It boosts their confidence and self-esteem. 'They develop a sense of responsibility, which, in some cases, we thought was not there,' she said. No tutor has ever asked to give up the scheme.

Zarina, Nurzana, and Clare, all 16, have tutored for two years, and say they have no regrets about giving up their time for teaching. 'You have to learn not to get angry, and to understand why they are making a mistake,' said Zarina. 'There have been some clear improvements, which is really satisfying to see,' said Nurzana. 'And you feel responsible,' reported Clare.

As tutoring is voluntary at Challney High, tutors are not picked because they themselves need extra reading help. Yet research into peer tutoring has found that tutors can learn even more than tutees through the process of teaching because of the huge boost teaching gives to their self- confidence.

Keith Topping, a lecturer in educational psychology at Dundee University, researched peer tutored reading in 15 schools in Yorkshire between 1989 and 1992, and found that tutees advanced, on average, at three times the rate normally expected - in a two-month period, they made six months' progress; while tutors advanced at four times the normal rate.

These were not particularly capable children. 'Tests taken on a sample of the children before peer tutoring started showed that, on average, they had been progessing at below the normal rate,' Dr Topping said.

Other spin-offs from peer tutoring can include a reduction in school bullying, and a stronger bonding between those children involved, the teachers and the school. In one recent study in Cleveland, Ohio, uncontrollable truants were used as tutors, and during the six weeks of the scheme each child attended school every day.

Other subjects as well as reading can be taught through peer tutoring: science, health education and maths tutoring have all been researched in Britain and the United States during the past five years. Research showed that the average learning gain is twice as great for maths as for reading, according to Professor Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon, director of the Peer Tutoring Consortium at Newcastle University.

Still more remarkably, some research has suggested that peer tutors can have an even greater effect than professional, adult tutors giving one- to-one instruction. Although, according to Professor Fitz-Gibbon, those results may have been accidental and should be treated with some caution.

At Challney High, Mrs Horne and two other teachers work nearly full- time on running the peer tutoring programme - choosing the children involved, preparing materials, supervising and assessing the lessons. Impressive though it may seem, peer tutoring does not yet spell the end of the teaching profession.

(Photograph omitted)