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Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
Hands up for Saturday school
Education Secretary Alan Johnson wants more schools to run Saturday classes. Union leaders are not entirely convinced.

By Marie Jackson
BBC News, education reporter


At the Gateway Academy in Tilbury, Essex, the school gates have been opening every Saturday for the past three years with some remarkable consequences.

For a long time it had been a case of "Gateway - no way" in the local area.

Two failing schools had been merged and it was not unlike a zoo, according to assistant head Rachel Ward.

When I first arrived, I thought the actual school uniform was white cap and trainers
Assistant head teacher Rachel Ward
"There were more kids in the corridors than in class," she said.

"The exam pass rate was 4%, about three-quarters of the children were involved in disruptive behaviour and when I first arrived, I thought the actual school uniform was white cap and trainers."

That was three years ago. Now the school is often down as first preference on applications, the GCSE success rate is over 30%, disruption is markedly down and there is a very strict uniform policy.

And the reason, says Ms Ward, has a lot to do with Saturday school.

Tomato selling

The idea was something she and deputy head Bernie Terry hit upon when putting students in Saturday morning detention.

Two of their keener students had said that, seeing as the teachers were in on Saturdays anyway, could they come in to do coursework. Saturday school was born.

From those first two, numbers have grown to 200.

Youth club
Tilbury does not have much to offer children at the weekend

On the day I visit there is not a seat to spare in any of the three computer rooms.

About 15 children are intently watching X-Men 3, while another 30 or so are busy mowing the lawn, raking the garden and selling lavender and their home-grown tomatoes.

There is rock 'n' roll band Inverse playing an Eric Clapton cover in the school hall, some card-making going on in one of the classrooms and a couple of girls in the entrance hall asking me to guess the weight of the pumpkin.

About 20 youngsters are warming up for a morning of team games and life skill lessons in the youth club.

There are only seven who do not want to be there - on detention and wearing their school uniform.

Truants at Saturday school

So what is it that can possibly make a child want to face a sixth day at school and miss out on a lie-in and a good dose of Saturday morning TV?

Ms Terry suggests it may have something to do with the fact there is so little to do in what is a very deprived community.

For some of the children though, it is as much a chance to meet up with their friends and do fun things in informal surroundings with the privilege of being able to come and go as they please.

One student would regularly spend four hours on a Saturday on the computer making a website or playing games - but was rarely seen at school in the week.

I get an immense amount of satisfaction - seeing them grow in a holistic sense
John Blake
Gardening club supervisor

"On the other hand you have children who are really keen to show you their homework," said Ms Ward.

But what about the teachers sacrificing a weekend away, a well-deserved Saturday lie-in or just a break from routine?

Maths teacher John Blake, who runs the gardening club, said: "I get an immense amount of satisfaction - seeing them grow in a holistic sense.

"They are used to seeing things on TV where everything is instant. Now they are able to grow peas and onions from seed.

"I'm working with a cross-section of ages. You cannot do this during the week. Focused learning in lesson time is quite specific.

"I think school now is six days a week. It's a full time occupation."

And for the first 18 months of Saturday school, none of the teachers was paid a penny.

"We knew when we started at a failing school, we were trying to change lives," said Ms Ward.

"Once a few members of staff did it, we would come back raving about how good it was. Then they would want to get involved."

Head teacher Gary Pratt
All schools would benefit
Gary Pratt
head teacher

Now they do get paid - 20 an hour for teaching or half that for supervision. Others work a flexible contract doing a four day school week plus Saturday.

The heads agree there need not be resistance from the unions.

"Unions will be happy if teachers can do what they want to do and it does not become contractual," said Ms Ward.

While head teacher Gary Pratt believes his school is a model for others keen to open on Saturdays.

"All schools would benefit," he said.

"If they looked at the needs in the area and worked with them."

In fact it has worked so well at Gateway that they use it as a way of attracting new staff and children.

Prospective teachers are first introduced to the school on a Saturday against a calmer, less formal backdrop, while pupils from feeder primary schools are invited to join in the classes, for example introductory French lessons.

In both cases, it has drawn more people to the school.

"I would say we have changed the children's lives," said Ms Ward.

Changing lives

Their next stop, according to Ms Terry, is to change the lives of the rest of the community.

"We want to see more adults coming."

Gateway encourages parents and grandparents to come along to use the computer rooms without charge.

And in an area where only 2% have any experience of further education, the benefits have been far-reaching.

Plans include rolling out classes in literacy, ICT, pottery, cake-making and dance, as the school moves into its new 38m state-of-the-art building.

Johnson plans classes on Saturday
25 Sep 06 |  Education
Task force to help black pupils
16 Mar 02 |  Education
More freedom for secondary schools
23 Nov 01 |  Education

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