On 20 Saturdays annually between September and the end of the following March, one hundred and sixty children from primary schools across the London Borough of Southwark descend on Alleyn’s School, Dulwich College and James Allen’s Girls’ School for two hours of curriculum enrichment under the auspices of Southwark Community Education Council (SCEC), a small local charity set up by lifelong Southwark resident, Edna Mathieson, in 1992.
Edna’s background in education research at LSE, as an elected member of the old Inner London Education Authority and as a Southwark LEA supply teacher had led her to become increasingly concerned by the way good average, motivated children in local schools were at risk of being educationally short-changed in very large, often mixed-ability classes despite the best efforts of hardworking teachers.
Determined to try to help such children, Edna turned to her colleagues at LSE who pointed her in the direction of Dulwich College because of its long history of educational innovation. Edna quickly won over the senior academics at the College and, in October 1992, the first tentative steps were taken with the launching of a Saturday School aimed at preparing motivated Year 6 primary school children for the potentially unsettling experience of transfer to secondary school. The College provided accommodation free of charge, and volunteer English, maths and science teachers took it in turns to lay on stimulating lessons for two hours on Saturday mornings.
Initially, convincing primary school headteachers that, far from there being any hidden agenda in the scheme, e.g. that the College might be using it to recruit bright boys, there was none at all but, rather, there was every possibility their schools might benefit from the injection of additional enthusiasm for learning brought back by their pupils. Her luck turned when one of the most influential and highly respected headteachers, Josie Spanswick from St Anthony’s, at first a sceptic herself, was won over.
Expansion followed rapidly: drama and, later, computing were added to the curriculum and within three years ten primary schools were involved with the selection of some 60 children being entirely in their hands; SCEC had started to recruit its own teachers and the need to raise funds became a primary concern for Edna and the board of trustees. That SCEC’s existence and activities were hardly matters of common knowledge in SE21 in those early days was hardly surprising as the primary schools Edna had recruited were chiefly in less affluent areas of the borough.
Sometime in 1996 during my time as Acting Master of Dulwich College, I happened to mention SCEC’s work at the College while in conversation with headteachers Marion Gibbs and Colin Niven. Their joint reaction was to suggest that perhaps JAGS and Alleyn’s might become involved in some way. And so it was that, in 1997, a family literacy scheme was launched at JAGS for Year 3 (7+) children experiencing difficulty with any aspect of literacy and, in 1998, a scheme was launched at Alleyn’s for Year 5 (9+) children showing well-above-average ability at mathematics.
Today, SCEC caters for about 160 children annually and employs thirteen specialist, graduate teachers. Outstanding features of our schemes are (i) the small class sizes: 9 for literacy (Y3) at JAGS, 12 for maths (Y5) at Alleyn’s, and 16 for Y6 at Dulwich College; and (ii) the involvement of senior students from the three Dulwich Foundation schools as mentors providing support for the primary children, extra pairs of hands for the teachers and giving themselves invaluable life skills in the process.
At JAGS, for example, every child has one-to-one support from a mentor who helps them with their reading and writing and becomes, in effect, a big sister.
From the start, SCEC has been immensely fortunate to have had accommodation provided rent-free, first at the College and now at all three Foundation schools. The schools also provide, free of charge, administrative support including running the payroll and a staff presence on Saturdays. These benefits in kind account for more than 50% of the charity’s notional annual expenditure. For the rest, we have to raise about £23,000 annually to cover teachers’ salaries (£20k), audit fee, evaluation fee, employers’ liability insurance etc.
Fundraising is a never-ending process with appeals to grant-making trusts at its core. However, in order to broaden SCEC’s fundraising base, we are launching a Friends organisation (Friends of SCEC) and should be delighted to hear from anyone interested in supporting us in what we believe is a most worthwhile enterprise if the following unsolicited comments are anything to go by from children on the schemes:
- I always look forward to coming to Saturday school. I couldn’t write poems but I can now (Y3)
- I can do reading better than before and I’m braver answering questions (Y3)
- I really enjoyed more advanced maths, especially probability and triangle numbers (Y5)
- I liked doing experiments, using microscopes to find out about onion cells and looking at maggots! (Y6)
- I’ve really enjoyed helping young people to learn. It’s rewarding to watch them get more confident every week.
- I joined because I thought it would be a really good experience and my favourite part has been getting to know the kids and seeing them learn.
- I enjoy giving my time to young people. I get a kick out of seeing them learn.
- There’s one kid here whose mathematical insight is already at degree level.
- It’s as fulfilling teaching these children as it is teaching A level students.
- When my daughter started attending she was very tentative and unsure of herself. I have seen her improve over the months, and her confidence has grown in leaps and bounds. She looks forward to coming every week and is so happy and excited to tell me what she has done when she comes out at the end. Thank you so much for instilling such confidence in my little girl.
and a snippet of conversation between a father and son overheard as they left the Y5 maths scheme:
- Father: “How was it this morning?” Son: “Illuminating”.