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And the parents came too

How did a Sheffield school manage to get mums from a local council estate into its classrooms as learners and as helpers? Stephanie Northen finds out

Joe Brian teaches a GCSE English class every Monday afternoon. Nothing surprising there, except that he is the deputy head of a primary school and his pupils are adults, mainly parents of children he teaches the rest of the week.

Four years ago he found it very hard to get any of them across the threshold. Mistrust and antagonism ruled. "Parents wouldn't come into the school unless they were going to flatten you," says Sheila Haigh, who took over as head of the failing Arbourthorne junior school in Sheffield.

That was in 1999. Now everything is different. "Whatever we do, we do with parents in partnership," says Mr Brian. This idea is central to the school's vision - and of the primary strategy, which aims to support parents in helping their children to learn and in learning themselves.

Creating a genuine learning community has been the key to turning Arbourthorne around, with Mr Brian testifying that the parents are now a great influence for good on their children's education. "Attendance and behaviour have improved dramatically. The parents take an interest in the school, they become governors and have set up a PTA. There's no barrier between us," he says.

Arbourthorne is now awash with parents, mainly young mothers from the council estate the 400-pupil school serves. Three or four help in every class, including the nursery. They can also be found in the staffroom, perhaps preparing fruit salad in line with the healthy eating policy, or reading Shakespeare with teachers. Yet more may be in the parents' room attending a course or a manicure session, or grilling the head of the local comprehensive on what they expect for their children when they transfer.

The bridge-building began with interactive homework for Year 3. Set four times a week, it was designed so that parents and children had to work together. "We asked parents to make a written comment on the homework. Then we got hold of those parents and invited them in to help," says Mr Brian.

Simultaneously, a learning mentor started weekly coffee mornings. Arts and music projects were organised for families, as was a residential weekend to work on literacy. Last month, 70 parents and staff went to the theatre together. The previous week, a group of 50 went. Mothers have been spotted queueing for a bus to take them to the ballet.

The Arbourthorne parents have also travelled the country publicising the credit union they run from the school. Debt is a problem in this working-class area and the union has taken the school into the wider community. It attracted a 70-year-old last year, who went on to take his first GCSE in Mr Brian's class. He got a B.

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Schools working in partnership with parents is a key theme of the primary strategy. Staff are encouraged to support parents in helping their children learn, through family learning projects and support for parenting skills. A new pilot, The Early Years and Parents' Project, aims to help parents during their children's transition to key stage 1; it is already supporting 15 schemes.

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