Why school's in for summer

Many children lose interest in learning over the holidays. Liza Donaldson looks at a scheme where the pupils are still raring to go
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In classrooms all over the country next week teachers will be scraping the rust off young minds, many of which will have regressed educationally during the long summer break. It is a ritual repeated every September as teachers make good the losses since July - losses exemplified in lower reading scores and forgotten facts.

But need it happen? In Birmingham hundreds of children have been fired up with the fun of learning through the summer at a Children's University, and for them the new term means they can get more of the same - only on Saturdays. The primary school age "students" can choose subjects ranging from French to photography, science and art to electronics.

Sessions for the children were free, and so hugely popular that many were turned away. But teachers were paid, and enthusiastic enough to give up precious holiday or leisure time. Crowd control normally exercised in the classroom was unknown. The teachers were almost superfluous since the children were so keen, and attended by choice. As 15-year-old Shehzad Butt, who wrote and helped perform a play this summer, puts it: "We learned a lot in a fun way - enjoying it - not like school where you have to listen to the teachers all the time."

The Children's University Project had a low-key launch last summer, with a pilot scheme that attracted 120 "students", mostly within the age range of 9 to 12. This year 520 came. But in the coming year it faces a meteoric expansion to touch the lives of 12,680 children.

It is clear CUP is meeting its aims, which are to help create positive attitudes to learning, not just among pupils but pupils backed by parents and schools, fostering a "learning for life" culture. Above all, according to the project director Anne Wood, the learning has to be fun. In no way is CUP an examinations agency - although certificates for children who complete modules are awarded. She expands: "What we are trying to do is give children the opportunity to excel and to pursue things that are interest- based, rather than exam-oriented." Ms Wood, a home school liaison teacher, says that the summer project in particular has value because "children with the best will in the world lose momentum, they become less focused during the holidays. What we are trying to do is bridge that gap." She calculates that in a year children spend only 48 days in school, 196 days sleeping, with a huge 121 days that parents have to occupy. "You cannot do that by just watching television and eating. There is too much slack. It is important that kids get off their bums and do something".

The term "university" was coined partly in tribute to the Open University and the use of distance learning. A special pack designed to cover the six-week holiday, for children to use with the help of parents, consists of challenges like joining a library or visiting a museum, plus a workbook.

Catherine O'Rourke, mother of Aisha, six, and Nadia, nine, explains how she took the girls shopping as suggested in the workbook, to compare the prices of baked beans. "It has given them quite an interest. Normally they don't notice what price things are. It all comes out of a can, doesn't it? They have measured their hands and feet. The youngest is a little shy and it has helped her so much."

Dr David Winkley, director of the National Primary Trust - one of the key drivers behind the project - says these comments show CUP's positive impact: "We are trying to get the mums to see that this kind of debate in the supermarket about prices is a critical learning experience for the child in terms of keeping their minds active." Parents begin to realise their role is wider than simply delivering children to school and children discover that learning does not stop at the school gates.

As head of Grove School in once riot-torn Handsworth, Dr Winkley notes that many children are simply plonked in front of the television or left to roam the streets. Come the September term, "very often we find children take a bit of time to crank up. They have slowed down during the holiday." Reading levels often fall below those they reached at the end of the summer term in July - a phenomenon that causes rows between primary and secondary heads since scores, inspectors say, can dip by as much as two years.

Dr Winkley maintains there is no limit to extending the project, given customer demand - bar resources. Business sponsors are being sought to back the current ones - Birmingham City Council, the King Edward VI Foundation, the National Primary Trust. One key founder is the city's education director, Tim Brighouse. Dr Winkley forecasts that the project is likely to be rolled out nationally.

The city education chair, Andy Howell, says CUP is giving early experiences of successful learning to primary pupils from all areas, from deprived to middle-class. CUP, he says, is helping to re-energise the school-parent- pupil relationship, showing parents that they play a pivotal educational role.

He sums up: "If we are really to make the quantum leap in education that cities like Birmingham need, then we can only really do that with a different sort of relationship between parents, teachers, schools and pupils. This scheme is helping to make that leap."