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The family way

Schools in Uganda have clever ways of involving parents, boosting pupil achievement and adult literacy. Now teachers here are learning from their ideas, says Yojana Sharma

Bugiri, eastern Uganda, a district where small villages and homesteads are scattered among the fields. A group of children sit in the shade of a mango tree as a woman explains how seeds grow and how to protect seedlings. A pretend shop has been set up with cast-off packaging; toothpaste boxes and soap wrappers to teach number skills. A hand-drawn chart about Aids hangs from the tree's branches.

It's a far cry from the high-rise blocks of south London, but this woman - a parent involved in after-school family literacy organised by Ugandan charity Labe (Literacy and Basic Education) - is part of a pioneering scheme that a Lambeth school is trying to emulate.

Parents of 7 and 8-year-olds in Bugiri attend two classes a week with their children after normal school ends, and are then encouraged to continue learning with them at home. This gives children who normally learn in classes of up to 150 more personal attention.

Parents club together, setting up an outdoor classroom, with mums, dads and children sitting on the beaten dirt. Mothers, who may be illiterate, are usually in the majority. Bugiri has the lowest literacy in a country where free compulsory schooling has only been available since 1997. Just 38 per cent of adult women and 56 per cent of men can read.

The Labe project, which will spread from 18 schools now to 72 in the district next year, aims to improve both adult literacy and educational performance of primary pupils by helping parents get involved. "Many children are taken out of school after the first few years of primary because their parents want them to help in the fields or look after younger siblings. Family learning helps parents appreciate school and helps break down barriers," says Lisa McFall of Education Action International, which helps fund the programme.

Bugiri's schools, with their huge classes, are a world apart from Hurley special school in Herne Hill, Lambeth, which has classes of 10 to 12 pupils. But Key Stage 2 co-ordinator Rachel Holmes found the hands-on approach she observed could be transferred to Hurley pupils with profound learning difficulties.

Holmes was one of a group of English primary teachers who visited Bugiri to see family learning. Their trip was organised by the League for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers and funded by the DfES as part of its professional development scheme.

They went thinking they would give more than they would take back, but many, like Holmes, found the experience inspirational, leading to changes in their own schools. "Any kind of teaching resource, including paper, was precious. This meant that parents used more active strategies for supporting their children's learning," says Holmes. There are parallels, she argues, with special schools, where many pupils are non-verbal and cannot take worksheets home, and parents don't know how to help.

"Although there was a charity in Uganda supporting parents by providing paper and pencils, parents were very creative, using tree bark or yam pulp to fashion letters, for example," says Holmes. The English teachers tended to be too sophisticated and ambitious in thinking of appropriate resources, whereas Labe encourages teachers to use natural resources such as sticks and fruit for counting.

With this in mind, Hurley school is now planning a series of home-sheets for parents outlining activities based on materials readily available at home that they can use to support learning. Holmes also hopes to adapt Uganda's story-sack idea, where parents help make resources at home that illustrate a story read to the children at school.

In Bugiri, stories are gathered from the parents' oral traditions and selected to link to curricular objectives, such as hygiene, mixed cropping and diarrhoea prevention. Hurley school has started using story sacks based on well-known tales, such as Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It also encourages activities based on counting and the days of the week, often using snap cards or bingo sheets. Parents already say they have found the ideas useful.

Parental involvement has been identified as important by all staff at Hurley, but teachers have little regular contact with parents because all pupils are offered local authority transport to school, and because some parents feel inadequate due to their children's special needs. As a result, many parents have very little idea about what happens in the classroom.

It is hoped that another Bugiri idea - education week - will draw them in.

Once a year, Bugiri schools suspend the curriculum in favour of activities - drama, dance and song - that display what the children have learned. The events involve the whole community.

"We could see the sense of enthusiasm and excitement of the Ugandan children expecting everyone to come to the school," says Holmes. She talks of "a carnival-like atmosphere to celebrate children's learning".

Education week is different from the typical open day in this country, says Holmes. "Parents can drop in and out during education week and maybe on the second or third day they will help with activities and get more involved."

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