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Make learning a family affair

Parents have a key role in teaching and making children feel good about learning. By welcoming them into classes, everyone benefits, Brenda Jennings reports

Two years ago headteacher Chris Saddler attended a Peers Early Education Partnership conference in Linlithgow. It had such an impact on her that she went away determined to involve parents and carers in their children's learning at her Midlothian nursery school.

Research published last year by the Department for Education and Skills in England found that children aged 3 to 5 whose parents participated in their early education through the Peep programme achieved systematically higher in language skills, by 5 percentage points, than those whose parents didn't. Similarly their numeracy scores were higher by 7.67 percentage points.

Aware of the potential benefits of the programme to pre-nursery and nursery children, Mrs Saddler set about obtaining funding for the training and running costs of Peep groups at Strathesk Nursery in Penicuik.

The first group started just over a year ago. There are now four, offering activities for babies to 2-year-olds. Two meet at Strathesk Nursery, one at the Stepping Forward centre and another at the Queensway Leisure Centre.

The idea for an early education partnership originated about 10 years ago in Oxford, where the headteacher of Peers Upper school introduced a programme to combat low achievement in numeracy and literacy. Two main strands of research have influenced the programme's development: brain research, which indicates that development and activity are greater in the first three years of life than at any other time; and research into early experiences, which shows that they have a decisive impact on later learning ability and also that early childhood programmes are more likely to succeed where there is effective parental involvement.

The Scottish Executive's drive for parental involvement in education is very much in line with the Peep aim to cultivate a parent-professional partnership based on mutual respect and a shared purpose of offering fun learning activities for under-5s.

Last session Strathesk Nursery teacher Jan McHaffie ran a Peep group for up to 10 2-year-olds and their parents or carers, including two fathers and a grandmother, and was assisted by an additional support needs auxiliary, Gillian Leadbetter. The two women have been a driving force in setting up the programme and organising a multi-agency in-service training course for Midlothian early years workers, including those involved in Sure Start, family learning, health and social services.

In the friendly atmosphere in the Peep Twos group, the toddlers had the chance to play percussion instruments, model with play dough and enjoy juice and biscuits between other activities.

The first part of the hour-long session took the form of circle time with lots of direct talking to the children, songs, mimes and actions for everyone to do. There was also story time and an opportunity to look at the children's pictures mounted in a large book.

A welcome song and goodbye song began and ended the session, with each child being made to feel special by being named individually and sung to by everyone else.

One dad, Tim, said: "This group is brilliant. It is a beautiful intermediate step between home and nursery. It's important for parents to get to know each other, especially dads."

The other dad, Ross, who was there with his wife, Vicky, and daughter Sophie, said: "The group has been good for building confidence and increasing listening skills. The children learn routine and there's lots of playing, sharing and having fun."

One of the main benefits staff have noticed is the interaction between the parents and carers. "They help each other with finding solutions and they don't feel so isolated any more," said Ms Leadbetter.

Some 17 organisations have undergone Peep training in Scotland, most in Edinburgh, the Lothians and Aberdeen. Midlothian Council is considering a bid for more funding to meet growing demand. It is hoped that Peep groups for 3-and 4-year-olds in the area will be started.

All parents and carers who wish to participate in the Peep programme are issued with a Learning Together pack. There is one for each year group from birth to age 4, which includes a folder, songbook and song tape. The folder is divided into the seasons of spring, summer and autumn, the time of year a child is born determining the season when he or she begins the programme.

It contains nine 12-page sections, each focusing on a theme, such as developing routines, tantrums and books for babies. Emphasis is put on routine, self-esteem, communication, physical contact, play, sharing books, interaction, singing and enjoyment, and there are lots of suggestions and ideas.

A two-day training course, Peep for Practitioners, is available for anyone doing learning activities with parents or carers. This is an interactive course with the emphasis on the practical details of using the Peep ideas and materials, and adapting them to suit local needs and contexts. The book for providers, Making the Most of Peep, has plans and curriculum maps for each year group's 32-week programme.

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