Extra-curricular: The fall and rise of enrichment

Written by: Paul Gammans | Published:
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In tough economic times, enrichment is often one of the first things to go, but schools ditch these activities at their peril, warns Paul Gammans. He considers what an effective enrichment programme should entail and argues why teachers should be given the time to get involved

I’ve always lived by the motto: “You get out what you put in.” As far as education is concerned, this means that the more opportunities you take advantage of while you are at school, the more you will learn, the more skills you will develop and the more you will enjoy your time there.

When I was at school, the extra-curricular activities were what I enjoyed the most. Of course, we didn’t call it enrichment back in the stone age, but whether it was the school play, the activities week full of choices or the computer club, these were the things that we enjoyed about school.

It was a great opportunity to get to know kids we wouldn’t normally mix with in our classes, see the teachers being a bit more normal and learn things we couldn’t learn in lessons. All the time – and this is the key – without actually realising we were learning.

Far away from the strictures of the classroom, where pupils can often feel inadequate about their intelligence or ability, enrichment allows them to relax and be themselves in a “safe” environment. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich or poor, whether their target grade is an A or an F, they can enjoy themselves without the pressure of grades or competition.

Enrichment is called just that because it enriches the school experience for young people. It helps to make them “well-rounded” individuals and encourages interests outside of study, social media, sleep, study, social media, sleep.

While the business of education is a very serious one and success is incredibly important for all stakeholders, at the end of the day children are still children; all work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy.

A 2014 report by the Sutton Trust which looked into the effects of “extra-curricular inequality” explained that research demonstrated “a positive effect of extra-curricular experience on both education and career outcomes”.

According to them, despite the fact that schools seem to run an inordinate amount of intervention these days, around a quarter of parents are still paying for additional home tuition on a regular basis. What does this say about the impact of these programmes?

If all of this is true, shouldn’t we as educators be ensuring that pupils gain as much extra-curricular experience as possible? Would we perhaps be better off spending less time on costly intervention programmes and more on high-quality enrichment?
Wave after wave of funding cuts by various education secretaries have meant that schools are squeezed more and more each year. In sixth forms and colleges, enrichment was funded until recently, but over the last few years this funding has all but disappeared.

Now and again, small attempts are made to inject funding into the system, like Nicky Morgan’s promise of £109 million for cultural education programmes in 2015, but it is just a drop in the ocean, inefficiently dripped.

Due to ever-decreasing budgets, schools that wish to run enrichment activities have to find other ways to raise the money, or rely on the kindness of the already-overworked staff to make things run.

We would all love to be able to pay for an extensive enrichment programme, but in order to keep class sizes down and staffing up, something has to give. And unfortunately for many schools, this has meant that enrichment has gone the way of the dodo.

And that, I believe, is a very sad thing.

Fortunately for the pupils, my school does run an enrichment programme. In a model adopted by quite a few schools around the country, this is not run by the teachers but instead it is staffed by people from outside the school on a set day each week. Pupils who wish to take part in enrichment activities pay a small termly fee, about £15, which goes towards the cost of running the activities.

At the same time as the enrichment activities, teachers are required to attend regular CPD or meetings. The money paid by the pupils helps to keep it going and a variety of different activities are on offer, from sewing to martial arts. Great – in principle.

The way I see it, however, there are still a few things wrong with this model. For many pupils, the cost element puts them off. Experience has taught me that any venture within school that requires pupils or parents to pay, even if it is only a fiver or less, automatically rules out a large percentage of the population. A fiver can be two meals for some families; £15 can start to look like a whole week.

The aforementioned Sutton Trust report also discussed the benefits of being from a wealthy family. Children from families who can afford to pay for extra tuition and enrichment activities tend to have better academic outcomes, as we know because of the amount of time we spend trying to “close the gap” of achievement between disadvantaged pupils and the rest of their cohort.

Not to mention that in the current economic climate, it isn’t just the Pupil Premium, but the “squeezed middle” that are put off by the charges. Charging the pupils for enrichment just puts another barrier in the way of these pupils being able to access all that their school has to offer.

Second, you have the fact that pupils who opt in to enrichment activities miss out on an early finish once a week while everyone else goes home. Never underestimate the power of peer pressure. If the choice is to stay at school with the handful that choose to or have to, or wander off to McDonald’s with your mates, the majority will go with the majority. No matter how good the selection of activities, this model will never produce great attendance.

The third and final issue with a system like this is that teachers who might otherwise want to run a club can’t. Granted, some teachers don’t want to, but were you to ask them if they would rather run a chess club or sit in a dreary CPD session, I think you could guess how most would answer.

I myself have often thought about setting up an enrichment activity, but can’t as I don’t have the time. When enrichment goes on, I am in training, almost invariably being taught to suck eggs and staring wistfully out of the window like Dillon in 8G.

The reason I find this sad is that all week we spend our time desperately trying to engage the kids in our (incredibly engaging and differentiated) lessons and managing challenging behaviour, then just when we could break the cycle, we hand them over to someone else for the fun stuff.

Now and again, half-hearted attempts are made to get teachers to run lunchtime clubs, but the same problems apply. With such constraints on their time, teachers are reluctant to take part and their efforts to drum up the interest of pupils tend to be equally half-hearted. What’s more, the kids can see it too.

In another local school, a compromise means that on one week, enrichment runs and on the next week, CPD runs. This model enables teachers to get involved with enrichment. As it is part of their directed time, they don’t feel like they are working extra hours and they have to be involved with something.

If the enrichment they choose to be involved in operates at different times, for example after school another day, then they can go home early on the enrichment day. Enrichment is compulsory for all pupils so they all get to access something different. This is a compromise that works much better for the pupils and the teachers.

One thing I hear a lot from staff around school and from CPD and from what practitioners have been pontificating about for years is that we need to build better relationships with our pupils in order to get a better atmosphere in the classroom.

Get to know your pupils, give them your time and they will work hard for you. Unfortunately though, this often gets misinterpreted by those in a position to make it happen. The number of times I have heard teachers and leaders bounce around, proud about their idea that we should have a day watching Wales vs England or take a trip to Alton Towers to “build relationships” with the pupils is ridiculous.

These kind of one-off events just don’t work like that. They are too little, too late. When it comes to academic interventions, it is the regularity of the intervention that has an effect, not a one-off “panic day” on a Sunday before the exam.

With enrichment, it is the same. Getting to know your pupils, really getting to know them, takes time. All any child wants is consistency, not someone who takes them to Alton Towers one day of their school year then has a go at them about their trainers for the other 189.

If you really want to do something to build a positive relationship with your pupils, run an enrichment activity. Trust me, when they come back to your lessons, the pupils who attend your club will see you more as a human being and less like the tyrant who is trying to force Shakespeare’s verse down their throats.

My son is mad on computers and wants to make a career out of working with them, but his favourite ever teacher at school was not the one who taught ICT – but the one who ran the Warhammer club.

What was his favourite lesson in years 7 and 8? RE. Not because he is a born-again Christian, but because that is the subject the guy taught. His analogies involving Space Marines and the God-Emperor of the 41st Millennium (don’t ask) helped my son to understand and engage with the topics in his lessons. Now, he doesn’t just like the teacher, he loves the subject.

As a result, he actually chose to take philosophy and ethics as a first-choice GCSE option, despite having no guarantee he would have the same teacher. Quite remarkable for a lad who spends most of his spare time shooting aliens on a games console and shouting at his mates online. I’m starting to think he might turn into one of those “well-rounded” individuals after all.

Personally, I would like to see all teachers having enrichment built in to their directed time. Give them the choice of what activity they want to do, or the option to support another activity rather than running one alone, but make it an expectation. Release them from an hour a week of teaching so they can run their activity without feeling like it is an extra burden.

I know it would cost money, but perhaps former chancellor George Osborne’s proposal for funding an extension of the school day could be used for this purpose. Instead of forcing pupils into another hour of lessons that they really won’t want to do, reduce the amount of pointless CPD the staff have to sit through or add another couple of teachers to each school so that they can be over-staffed to cater for enrichment.

Injecting some new life into our dying enrichment offer is really a no-brainer. Following this model would mean the teachers and the pupils alike would have a break from the daily grind, which has benefits for both academic achievement and pastoral wellbeing.

We’d improve attendance: the more things pupils want to come to school for, the more often they will attend, which in turn is proven to improve attainment. It would allow us to win back some of that “community” aspect that we are so sorely lacking in many institutions, without any silly gimmicks. Surely this would be a win-win situation?

  • Paul Gammans works as a faculty director in a secondary school somewhere in the UK. He has 10 years’ teaching experience in a range of subject areas and key stages, from primary to sixth form. Where necessary, names and places have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent.


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