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Helping parents help pupils;Curriculum

Patricia Brown has a plan for getting youngsters to read: give them the sack.

Story sacks are not new. They can be purchased from most suppliers of early education equipment, but a project at an Edinburgh nursery is a little bit different and takes a step forward in promoting early intervention.

Last month Brunstane nursery class launched a Story Sack initiative to support early reading skills in the pre-school group. The project began in autumn 1998, when baseline testing had been completed for the new session's intake in Primary 1 and revealed, as we had expected, that the children most disadvantaged in tackling the test came from families where parental input in supporting early literacy was low.

Most of these children had attended our nursery and been exposed to a wide range of experiences designed to stimulate their interest in books, print in the environment and language games. But the vital element which ensured success for their peers was missing.

Although the nursery had a good track record of partnership with parents, there was no opportunity to offer structured support in preparing children for learning to read by focusing on their parents and developing their skills as partners in the process. A preparatory talk prior to the children moving up to P1 was sufficient for a number of interested parents, but this was missing the mark with those who would benefit most from understanding their own importance in ensuring their child's success.

An unexpected injection of money from the Excellence Fund gave us the opportunity to think creatively, act quickly and set up a project which we felt would have the desired effect. Having a skilled and dedicated nursery nurse on our staff, who could manage the project, was an added bonus.

From October 1998 to June 1999, we employed an extra nursery nurse one day per week to release Margaret Connolly from nursery class to work with parents.

She was already a familiar figure to the parents, and also one they readily identified as sensible, with a sympathetic and approachable manner. Part of her remit was to establish workshops for parents in methods to support pre-reading skills, lead working parties in making sacks to contain books and toys to stimulate interest in early reading, and develop links with other agencies who could provide extensions to a whole range of early literacy development. A lot to do in one day a week.

By June we had achieved most of what we set out to do. The sacks, bright and cheerful in appearance and attractive to their target audience were bulging with interesting new books, toys, activities and suggestion cards.

The parents had worked with Mrs Connolly on sewing these and were interested in using them with their children. (A number of the books had been obtained by a massive collection of crisp packets and newspaper tokens, co-ordinated for the whole school by Mrs Connolly.) Trips were arranged for parents and children to the local library for story sessions which had an enthusiastic uptake and resulted in more children looking forward to a weekly trip to the library as well as choosing a book from the nursery stock. We decided to continue the project this session, with an extension into sacks for early numeracy skills.

A launch for the literacy sacks was planned for October to include the parents of the present nursery class, the parents of the new P1 class and all the outside influences we felt could assist us in forwarding the project.

The launch was a great success. The enthusiasm with which the children explored the bags with their parents was reward enough in itself. But we were aware, even before the launch, that there was still a potential audience eluding us and that even greater efforts had to be made to reach these parents in order to support their children at this vital stage in their development.

Despite the guarantee of a nursery place for pre-school children, we can still identify a group who come to school lacking in early literacy skills.

Some have not attended any nursery, some have such poor attendance that any acquisition of skills is patchy, some come from families where books are a very low priority and this is the group that we must reach this year. If funding is available, we hope to extend Mrs Connolly's remit to include home visits and sessions working with parents of the present P1 who missed out on skill development last year.

The Story Sacks may be established, the partnership with parents working well and the links with other agencies developing, but there are still uncharted waters for us to explore to ensure that every child comes to school with a firm foundation for learning to read.

Patricia Brown is depute headteacher at Brunstane primary school, Edinburgh

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