Bond, games bond

Parents and young children are receiving support, social contact and gateways to other services thanks to the 22 school centres which open their doors and offer expert intervention. There is light at the end of the tunnel, says Douglas Blane.

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Kids don't vote. So early years has always struggled for funding - which, you might think, can only get worse in tough times like these. But you could be wrong.

The Scottish Government is showing more commitment to early years, not less. One reason is a recent Government report that shows big savings can be made by intervening early in children's lives.

Enlightened local authorities are beginning to get the message by tackling parent and child support needs before they harden into expensively intractable real problems.

The secret is to start early, says Jane Mason, an early-years learning and teaching officer in Fife. Very early.

"We've been setting up centres in schools to work with children from birth to the age of three. Fairer Scotland funded it at first, but it's now part of education early years," she says.

"We have 12 family workers supporting 22 school centres, in recognised areas of deprivation, for children under three - and we're planning to expand."

Valuable in themselves - and valued by parents seeking friendly support, social contact and educational activities - the sessions at these centres are also gateways to other services, says Mrs Mason. "They are for anyone who wants to come along. Then it's a matter of our family support workers pointing them in different directions.

"We have relationships with health visitors, social workers, Gingerbread, Barnardo's, the family and community support team - the former integrated community schools. So when we see a family needs more support than the regular group activities, we have the contacts to put that in place. It's all about partnership working."

At Kennoway Primary, the regular group activities take place two mornings and one afternoon each week, says headteacher Catherine Stewart.

"This is an area with quite a lot of deprivation," she says, "but you have to try to involve everyone in the community, not just people who are all in the same boat. We want everybody working together and providing positive examples and support for those who need it most."

Hosting the groups in schools has long-term benefits, in terms of children's education and welfare, and even just familiarity with the surroundings, she says.

"We always like to get parents involved. It gets children off to a great start at school. It means they know me and are comfortable in school. And it often means the kids are already reading and interested in books when they start P1," she explains.

Looking comfortable this morning in the school hall, waiting for the fun to start, are almost 50 mums, babies and toddlers, sitting, kneeling, chatting to neighbours, pushing plastic cars, cuddling soft toys, studying each other closely or wandering around the well-lit, safe environment.

Dads sometimes attend, says family support worker Shirley Inglis. "But it's harder to get them here, so it's mostly mums, as you see. What we do is about education, as much as support. We organise activities that get parents interacting with their children. Some can be quite isolated at home, so it's also about helping them interact with each other."

There is also a large element of building parents' confidence in themselves, as "people with brains as well as babies", as she puts it.

"We've done first-aid courses, craft workshops, parenting and playwork courses. We take them out on visits to the library, the swimming pool and for walks around the town," she says.

"The parents have had pampering sessions. We've taken them to the local college to learn about the courses there. We've done loads of activities. We ask what they'd like, so a lot of ideas do come from parents."

With the majority of two-hour sessions held in the school hall, however, the lead role in ideas, structure and activities is played by the family support workers. So after a leisurely start this morning, with tea, juice, toast and friendly chat, it's time to get the party started.

"We're aiming to develop the wee ones' brains and communication skills," Shirley says. "So we get instruments out every session and have rhyme- time, with Lycra and finger-puppets.

"You can watch babies that start here very young and when they get to a certain age they start dancing, even before they can walk. They love the music."

Big smiles as the singing starts confirm this, as the kids provide the accompaniment with a variety of drums, tambourines, xylophones, gurgles, squeals of pleasure and clapping hands. Old favourites, such as Baa Baa Black Sheep and Incy Wincy Spider go down well, despite their tunelessness.

But more modern songs like The Little Green Frog, which have a bit of rhythm, a nice melody and lots of actions for the kids seem particularly popular with them and their mums:

"But we know phones go ding-a-ling-a-ling. Ding-a-ling-a-ling, ding-a- ling-a-ling.

We know phones go ding-a-ling-a-ling.

They don't go ring-ring."

"You're enjoying it now," observes family support worker Marion Allan, who works with groups in Kirkcaldy schools. "But you'll be singing it in your head all day. There are 12 of us family support workers, seconded to run groups, right across Fife. There would usually be two of us at a group this size."

Groups vary, depending on what's available in their area and on what people want. "We respond to the local community," she says.

"I remember one session on baby memory and literacy skills, where some mums revealed they had literacy issues themselves. So we moved on to working with them on Big Plus literacy training. Some got qualifications and went on to study at college."

As the singing games enter the next phase - parachute play with a large sheet of Lycra - young Zander and his mum Clair Hamilton (pictured on pages 18-19) take time out to talk about why they are here.

"We've been coming since almost the start of the group. He was four weeks old then and he's 22 months now," says Clair.

"It was just a wee group at first. That was nice because you got more time with people. But I like the big group too. It is noisy but there's nothing wrong with a bit of noise. Zander makes as much as anybody - don't you?"

Zander nods and a smile flashes over his face. But sitting still while his pals are having fun holds no appeal, so he leaves us and his mum continues. "I'm a nursery nurse, so I know how important it is for brain development at this age to play and socialise."

The group is especially valuable for Zander as an only child, she says. "He's made some lovely friends here and they'll all go to nursery together and then to school. That'll be good for all of them. It's great for us parents, too. I've just done a paediatric first-aid class through Shirley. She's brilliant."

With two young boys, Michelle Hill normally needs eyes in the back of her head, she says. "But it's a safe environment here. We help each other. The group was a lifesaver for me, just after my older boy was born. I was stuck in the house with no one to talk to, when I heard about it from a friend."

Still on maternity leave from her job as a bus driver, and attending all three Kennoway sessions a week, Michelle hopes to keep coming to one when back at work, she says.

"I was worried about how Aiden would be when his brother came along. But he was really good with him. He knew how to act around babies from coming to this group. It's great for the kids."

Shy children come out of their shells in just a few weeks, she says. "Owen has been coming since he was two weeks old and he doesn't bat an eyelid now. It gives the kids confidence and the mums.

"As a new mum, you're often nervous. You don't know if you're doing things right. Then when you're off work for a while, in the house with wee kids, you lose confidence in talking to adults. This group stops that happening. It keeps you in touch."

- Songs and rhymes in bookbug sessions: bit.lyuhgXdA

- The Financial Impact Of Early Years Interventions In Scotland - Part 2: Joint Ministerial Foreword: bit.lyvNRToQ

`They come along and don't feel threatened'

The main concern of parents at the Kennoway group is that family support worker Shirley Inglis is moving on shortly.

But mobility of those who run the parent and toddler groups is unavoidable, says Jane Mason: "This has to be sustainable. So having set it up with Fairer Scotland funding in Fife, we are now using early-years funds and seconded early-years officers."

That means 23 months is the maximum stay for anyone, Ms Inglis explains.

"I go back to my substantive post, working with three- and four-year-olds very soon. It's the way things are. But I'll be taking lots of new skills with me.

"With very young ones, you're more of a support for parents. If I don't know the answer to a sleeping or breastfeeding problem, say, I point them in the right direction."

It comes back to the partnership working and joined-up thinking that was fundamental from the start of the initiative, Mrs Mason says.

Her aim now is to forge closer links between the family support workers and family and community support - the former integrated community schools - creating continuity and smooth transitions of support from birth right through to school.

"The last thing we want is for families to have this high level of support in early years, then be abandoned when kids get older. You don't only get depression when they're two-year-olds."

Reaching families in most need is still not straightforward, Ms Inglis says. "They're coming to our groups more now, because they don't feel threatened. Friends come and then talk to them. I go to the baby clinic and the nursery. I hand out flyers. I even stop mums in the street pushing their buggies. You have to keep at it."

The most vulnerable families need support not just with parenting but with activities that have a huge impact on educational outcomes, Mrs Mason says.

"The Growing Up in Scotland figures show that parents need support in sharing literacy and numeracy experiences.

"They are just not getting that rich, nursery-rhyme culture any more. So we're doing the rhyme-time. We're picking up on the Government's Play, Talk, Read scheme. We are supporting all that, so that parents can really enjoy being with their children."

Growing Up in Scotland:bit.lyj1khFZ

Play, Talk, Read: bit.lymCISp6.

Photo credit: by Alistair Linford

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