It is a fresh idea in this country. In the United States, the concept is not new (rather, middle-aged since it was first developed in the mid 1960s), but age hasn't detracted from vitality. In fact, foster grandparenting has been so successful there that today more than 20,000 older volunteers meet 100, 000 schoolchildren every day to offer support, guidance and an older and wiser view on life.
In the UK, the Labour Party regards such partnerships, particularly with children under five years old, as strategies for avoiding adolescent social problems. Shadow education secret-ary David Blunkett believes in the "vital role'' that grandparents traditionally played in helping their children with their own offspring. Modern demographics has led to those natural support systems being destroyed, leaving nothing in their place. Parents today may flounder as they encounter childrearing problems, and children grow up without a special relationship with a loving and experienced grandparent. The grandparents miss out on the next generation's development, and may feel they have experience and expertise to offer, but no one to receive it.
Labour wants to see a network of "grannies'' - in reality, men and women in their 60s and over - who can befriend vulnerable families, working with them at home or in centres to advise the parents and guide children.
Age Concern appreciates the benefits to be reaped from such relationships and has, since 1995, run pilot projects in Enfield, Stockport and Warwickshire that match older volunteers with children considered to be vulnerable by their schools or social workers. There are 80 volunteers on the books at the moment.
While some volunteers fit into the Blunkettian vision of grand-parent figures teaching parenting skills to families in need of help in social services centres, others work exclusively with children in schools. Either way, the relationships seem to be fruitful and warm.
Jennifer MacIntyre, who is the TransAge Action coordinator for the project in Enfield, north London, is aware that being sensitive about the way volunteers are placed in schools, is important. She made an initial approach to two local primary schools to explain the project to headteachers and asked if they would like to take on a volunteer to work with specific children.
"We're very careful that we don't supplement a child's statutory right to specialist provision. We give extra adult care in order to boost children's self-esteem,'' she says.
In the process, volunteers' self-esteem is boosted, too. Joan Spicer, a retired deputy headteacher now volunteering at her former school, says: "This is about people being used for their expertise and experience to give pleasure to children and to themselves.'' As a professional educator, she was able, in conjunction with the school, to devise a programme of work with children needing help.
At Arnos Family Centre, Jean Wilkins sits and reads a story to Tom, an utterly delectable 19-month-old with a blond mop of hair. Jean has two grandchildren and works part-time at Age Concern. Twice a week she braves a journey involving a train and two buses each way to play, read and cuddle toddlers, take them on trips or go to the park.
Tom isn't vulnerable in the usual social worker's sense of the word. His mother, Sarah, wanted him to come to the social services-run centre so that he could be with other children and adults. She is profoundly deaf and married to a man who is hearing impaired, and was worried that Tom's language development would be slowed down by his being in a "very quiet house''. Jean spends 45 minutes a week in one-to-one sessions with Tom, who attends the centre part-time, for group activities as well. She notes down observations on Tom's behaviour which are passed on to National Nursery Education Board-trained person, who is also a key worker at the centre.
Sarah is happy with the arrangement. "Tom has become much more confident since coming here. When he leaves, he's chatting away.'' For Jean, it is an experience in bilingualism. Tom teaches her sign language as well as talking to her, as he begins to realise that unlike his mum, other adults he comes into contact with can hear.
For Joan, the scheme makes consummate sense. "The reality is that there have never been enough resources for children needing extra help and there are a lot of older people in the community with time on their hands who are not ready to sit down and die when they stop working."