Government literacy school, Leytonstone, east London

Summer School
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The Independent Online
An industrious hum reverberates in the classroom. It is sunny outside, but inside studious concentration prevails as 26 children set their minds to writing a horror story. Surely spending the summer holidays at school provides the perfect plot? Apparently not. They would sooner be sitting at these low tables, colour-coded according to ability, than slouching in front of the television at home.

Welcome to the Flying Start summer school at Leytonstone School, east London, one of the Government's pilot literacy schools.

Nasir, 11, punches a hole in his Certificate for Outstanding Effort and adds it to his file. "In the holidays, most of the time you just sit at home and watch the TV and get bored," he says.

Nasir is not alone in his willingness to forego his summer holidays if it means arriving at secondary school in September better able to read and write. And far from being a tedious slog, the pilot summer school is a pacy programme of tasks designed to boost literacy, rewarded with afternoon trips to Wembley, Madame Tussauds and The Lost World. The motif for the fortnight is a rocket; the motto, to have fun while learning.

Headset on and mouse in hand, Sharlene, 11, is trying out Reading Blaster 2000 (dubbed "Challenge of the Reading Gladiators"), a favourite with the children. The library is silent. The children are wired up to their computers, all eyes on the screens.

"Choose a product for your commercial," booms a voiceover into Sharlene's ears. Sharlene responds by zapping the Sweetie Squares icon before toying with whether to click on Cosmic, Rumba, Circus or Blues as background music. Other programs include Kids Phonic II and Interactive Stories.

"All these programs are quite Americanised," says Anita Maguire, the summer school's project leader. But Sharlene is too locked into the program to care. Her mentor, Andrea, 15, a pupil at Leytonstone School, sits beside her. After half an hour of staring at the screen, Andrea and Sharlene return to the classroom. Out comes The Family Who Won a Million, Sharlene's chosen book, and Andrea, who is being paid pounds 30 to mentor Sharlene for an hour a day for the two weeks, starts reading out loud. A page or so later, Sharlene takes up the reins.

They both agree that nothing beats good, old-fashioned reading out loud from a book. Playing intellectual Space Invaders is fun, but not as valuable. "The video's more like fun. The book is more like English," says Sharlene, turning to Andrea, whose same style in sportswear suggests she is a good match. "I've got the courage to read out loud now," adds Sharlene. "I don't feel as nervous when it's not the teacher."

Initially, Sharlene was not best pleased at being singled out as a suitable candidate for the summer school. In order to qualify, children must be teetering on the edge of the Government's grade four literacy level, the average expected of an 11-year-old. Her initial reaction was: "Why me?" One week in, she is delighted that she took up the offer. Not only has she overcome her fear of reading out loud, but she has made a head start in the friends department too.

Andrea takes her mentoring duties seriously. "Sharlene is a good student, and if I can help her get more advanced before she comes to Leytonstone School it will benefit her," she says."When they told me what I had to do I was a bit jealous that when I started secondary school, I didn't have that to start off with."

Another mentor, Jermaine, 15, has high hopes for his mentee, Baderinwa, 11. "He can be the perfect reader, using different voices for different characters," he says. The pounds 30 is by-the-by, he adds. "It's quite well- paid, but I'd do it without the money. It's really just about helping younger kids."

The children - both the 11-year-olds and 15-year-olds - get full marks for enthusiasm. Sadly, at least one of the "adult helpers" appears ill- equipped to honour such commitment. "Miss, how do you spell apostrophe?" asks an 11-year-old. "I'm not quite sure myself," comes the reply. "Just write down how it sounds." Small wonder that half the class is spelling the word `apostrofy'.

Miss Maguire, Leytonstone's head of learning and language support, is delighted with the summer school's reception. "There has never been an occasion when someone has said: `Oh, I could be at home watching television, doing nothing.' That has not even raised its shadow"n