The University of the First Age: summer schools with a difference

Teenagers at the University of the First Age can't get enough of its summer courses, says James Morrison. They're fun, teach new skills - and even narrow the gap between rich and poor
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It's mid-afternoon on a broiling Friday and 10 excitable teenagers are perched on benches in a mercifully air-conditioned film theatre, waiting for a screening to start. Near the back of the auditorium, a group of girls is singing a cappella. Several rows down, three fidgety boys alternate between scribbling on feedback forms and tapping their pencils impatiently on the seats in front.

When the lights finally dim, the room is filled with a chorus of whoops and whistles, followed by a burst of laughter, as the tutor, Mitch Goodwin, uses his lighter to squint at the controls on his laptop computer. At length, the big screen flickers into life and the first of three short films opens with the image of one of the boys at the front thundering down a staircase to the pounding intro of The Spencer Davis Group's 1966 hit "Keep on Running".

We are witnessing the dénouement of one of nine summer schools being run this year by the University of the First Age, a government-subsidised charity set up to offer structured extracurricular activities to secondary school children. UFA is celebrating its 10th birthday, and the 2006 programme is more ambitious than ever - with workshops focusing on everything from creative writing, to being a pop impresario, to designing a new central park for its home city, Birmingham.

As the room falls respectfully silent, parents are ushered in to join their offspring for the premiere. While hardly Palme d'Or material, the films aren't bad. The first, heralded by the ominous capital letters BUM (the initials of a fictitious production company, Bundled-Up Madness) alternates between Reservoir Dogs-style slow-motion, fly-on-the-wall interviews, and surreal slapstick à la cult stunt show Jackass. It's the third, Belief, a cross between Cinderella and Fame lasting substantially longer than the stipulated three minutes, that earns the most laughs (not all, one suspects, intentional).

Afterwards, certificates are presented in a ceremony more like a school assembly than the Oscars. Each child will receive DVD copies of all three films, and they will be aired on a local BBC digital channel.

The University of the First Age has been doing this kind of thing since its inception. Each summer, 100-plus children aged 12 to 17 attend programmes in Birmingham, and out-of-school activities are organised all year in partnership with 45 local authorities. The charity used to charge £50 a child, but waived this in favour of voluntary donations. Costs are met through an annual Department for Education and Skills grant and sponsorship, with many workshops run by volunteers using equipment supplied by partner organisations.

The film course is a case in point: both Mitch and the £1,000 digital video cameras used to make the shorts are "on loan" from the University of the West of England's Technology Innovation Centre. One of UFA's regular partners, this is conveniently situated a floor below it in Birmingham's cavernous Millennium Point building - a futurist's dream, with its industrial-style glass lifts straight out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and "in-flight" narration by a reassuring voice reminiscent of Peter Jones's in the original radio series of The HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This is UFA's only centre, but the charity also employs a handful of full-time managers whose job is to travel the country training teachers and council education officers in its trademark "action learning" approach.

Though cautious about sounding prescriptive (its literature, despite being riddled with buzz-phrases, avoids terms such as "social inclusion"), UFA's primary concern is to reach children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Its founder, pioneering educationalist Tim Brighouse, was inspired by a conviction that extracurricular activities hold the key to closing the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families. Just 15 per cent of a child's waking time is spent in school, and a study by American theorist Richard Rothstein shows the disparity stays much the same during the academic year but widens over holidays, when affluent families can offer their children better enrichment activities.

Recent research by UFA suggests it is slowly helping to narrow this gap: a survey of the first 600 teenagers to experience it found those who spent 75 hours or more there gained at least one more GCSE A-C grade than children in a control group who didn't. It's hardly surprising the attendance rate for the four-week summer programme is typically 98 per cent - a statistic most schools would kill for.

By way of endorsement, the UFA model is now being emulated in London, with the launch of a new £2m DfES-funded "summer universities" programme. It isn't all plain sailing, though. The value of UFA's core government funding has plummeted over the past decade. It remains frozen at £470,000 - a third of its overall £1.5m annual budget, and exactly the same as when the charity was founded. This summer is also the first in five years when it has had to subsist without help from the Big Lottery Fund, forcing it to reduce the length of some of its schools.

Chief executive Linda Gregory, whose soft Brummie accent and owlish glasses give her the air of a mumsy headmistress, explains: "In Birmingham, the 100 places we offer are a drop in the ocean. We peg ourselves to every big initiative that comes along to try to increase our funding."

The cutbacks haven't gone unnoticed by the children. In a room festooned with coloured paper, Matthew Yearwood, 15, is racing to finish the storyboard for his film presentation with one eye on the clock: "It's difficult to do it in the time we've got available, and they're not too pleased if we don't get it done."

Fellow mogul Chris Hammond, also 15, agrees, recalling that last year's film course lasted a fortnight, rather than a week. But, he adds: "I'm not sure if that's a bad thing, because this is how it is in the industry."

Most of those taking part today seem happy. Charlotte Wagstaff, 14, who attends Cockshut Hill Technical College in Yardley, one of Birmingham's most deprived areas, surveys a model for the city's putative new park. Built from Plasticine, bubble-wrap and card, it looks like something Blue Peter might have made earlier. "This is our sculpture area, and that's a bird's-eye view of the restaurants and live bands we'll need to persuade people to go to the park," she says, pointing to a pair of tights held up with garden wire and a series of paper shapes that represent tables, chairs and some kind of stadium.

The most exuberant member of the group is Robert Sheldon, 14. When asked where he goes to school, he turns sheepish and mumbles: "I don't. I was chucked out."

From behind him, Jan Polack, the UFA manager, chips in with: "You're here to re-engage with school, aren't you, Robert?" So are all these efforts to "reengage" him working? "Yeah," he exclaims, beaming. "If school was like this, I'd want to get an A+ in everything. We all would!"

Recent hiccups aside, the UFA's founder, who retired from its board earlier this year, is certain it will survive to spawn further imitators. Prof Brighouse, 65, who financed the charity's start-up costs by successfully suing former Tory Education Secretary John Patten for branding him a "nutter" in his then role as Birmingham's chief education officer, says proudly: "I think the UFA was in many ways ahead of its time. I was particularly anxious for those from challenged backgrounds to get into it, believing that, for some of them, we would crack the cycle of disadvantage."

His one regret is that he hasn't systematically tracked the progress of the UFA's alumni to find out where they have ended up. But he is convinced that most will have benefited from it - and optimistic that, in time, government will be moved to recognise the "universal right" of every child to structured out-of-school activities.

"I'd like to see a ring-fenced grant introduced by the Government, matched by local authorities, and some of that used to give parental vouchers to those from disadvantaged backgrounds - like with free school meals," he says. Asked if he believes that this will ever happen, he says confidently: "Yeah, one day. Of course it will."

UFA summer schools run at Millennium Point, Birmingham, until August 18. To enquire about availability call 0121 202 2345 or e-mail

A head start in summer

Since 1996, the University of the First Age has provided activities for 500,000 teenagers and trained 3,000 adults to deliver them

Satellite UFAs exist in 45 areas, from Newcastle to Bristol

The number of summer schools in Birmingham's four-week programme has risen from six to eight since last year - benefiting 110 teenagers aged 11 to 17

A 2001 study found that children who spent 75-plus hours with UFA achieved at least one more GCSE A-C grade than those who didn't

UFA's company name is The Academy of Youth - it's not allowed to register itself as a university because it isn't one!