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Family sagas under the tree

Laurence Alster on a literacy project that lets parents spin their life stories.

This Christmas, parents around the country will give their children books. What will happen next is fairly certain. The children will read their books (or part of them) on their own, or turn to something with rather more classroom cred - a computer game, perhaps, or a video.

This won't happen everywhere, of course. One place where it certainly won't happen is in the homes of pupils at Nine Acres county primary school on the Isle of Wight. For them, Santa's sleigh is piled with books of a very special kind.

Over the past few months, mothers on the school's City and Guilds Word Power and Number Power courses have been putting together storybooks, with photographs featuring themselves and their children, in time for Christmas. For all those involved, the project has been an unqualified success.

Gaye Murdoch, author of Murdochs' Misty Morning Madness, the story of a day out with her three children, speaks for all when she says: "It's a lovely idea, one that really brings us closer to the kids. We all feel as though we're developing together."

Another mother, Sheila Buttery, agrees: "The book that I'm doing with my children gives them something for themselves. It's theirs, they're in it, and they've helped to write it. And it's so much better than learning English the way we did when we first went to school."

But the project, developed from the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit's family literacy scheme, also benefits others at Nine Acres. Before writing their storybooks, the mothers on the CG courses, which are designed to extend literacy and numeracy skills, made up book bags for children of reception and pre-reception age. This meant consulting parents, booksellers and teachers on suitable books, buying and reading them and including objects in the bag to match characters in specific books. Finally, the bag was given to parents of reception class children for evaluation.

Those involved have only praise for the scheme. Nickie Sanders, another mother on the course, is typical: "Doing the book bags has opened our eyes to a new way of reading and getting involved with the children. A lot of the reception kids' mums think that the bags are brilliant, mostly because their children act out much of the book with the characters."

Ann Warman, whose children are in reception, agrees: "One of my twins always found reading too boring, but the performance element encouraged by the book bags has really got him interested."

Everybody gains, then, from this hands-on experience. For Nine Acres headteacher Margaret Walding, nothing but good can come from children seeing their parents actively and enthusiastically in-volved in education.

Sarah Teague, who teaches in the adult education department of Isle of Wight College, goes further. As project organiser, she takes particular pleasure in watching mothers gain the confidence not only to contribute to their children's education, but also to better their own lives: "It's been really exciting to see parents taking up opportunities that they thought they'd missed out on."

This Christmas, the season's favourite cliche - "We only do it for the kids" - will be heard yet again. Perhaps it won't be repeated quite as much on the Isle of Wight as elsewhere, however. In some homes at least, one gift is certain to be greeted by all the family with far more enthusiasm than usual, not to mention pride.

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