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Mum and dad know best

Ministers want more parents to become involved in their children's education, so a successful home-school strategy devised by a mother of four is winning friends and influencing people beyond its local roots. Wendy Wallace visits one of the pilot primaries

At Highfield primary school, slap in the middle of Plymouth's Efford estate, it could be difficult to involve parents in their children's education. Many parents are very young and have a history of school failure themselves. Unemployment is high and, with few amenities or shops locally, life itself can be a full-time job. The postwar estate is bounded by Dartmoor on one side; the city centre is three-and-a-half miles away downhill to the sea on the other.

But Highfield has made a concerted - and successful - effort to involve parents. "The biggest impact has been raising their self-esteem," says special educational needs co-ordinator Linda Mercer, who's taught for 20 years at Highfield. "We value them, and that affects their children."

Staff here have used a package developed by former members of the Devon Parent Teacher Association to create a new way of working with local families and others in the community. EPPa - the Effective Partnership with Parents scheme - is a toolkit born initially out of the experience of a mother of four, Jean de Rijke, and her involvement with her own children's schools, first in the Midlands, then in the West Country.

As a parent, former PTA Devon secretary Ms de Rijke found "fundraising and cake baking" limited, and wanted to get more involved. "There was a lot of goodwill but no overall strategy to bring parents and schools together," she says. "For schools, parental involvement was always going to be on the backburner; it is just one more thing for heads and governors to have to implement. The idea was to develop a strategy to make it easy for schools."

With PTA colleagues, she worked on just such a strategy. A four-year pilot, funded by local education authorities, the Learning and Skills Council and the Department for Education and Skills, led to the EPPa package, which is in use in 15 primary and secondary schools in Devon and Cornwall, and about to be tested in inner-London schools. Highfield was one of the pilot schools.

The key feature of EPPa is that schools pass a large part of the responsibility for home-school relationships over to parents, with the formation of a parent-led "action team". The team consists of parents, governors, teachers, other school staff and community members. But although the school must have representation on the EPPa action team, it is parents who take the lead role in identifying relevant activities, raising funds and managing them.

Creating action teams fits in with the Government's agenda - education minister David Miliband recently commented that engaging more parents in the education of their children was the "toughest problem" in breaking cycles of underachievement. It can also bring in substantial funding and costs schools nothing.

The EPPa toolkit - basically a set of resources and training materials, plus telephone help and links to others involved in the scheme - promises "a comprehensive package containing everything required for establishing an action team". Its success, of course, rests on parents' willingness to get involved. For EPPa to succeed, schools need people such as Pauline Chapman and Kath Hancock, two community dynamos from the Efford estate who have been central to the transformation at Highfield.

Kath Hancock began as a parent volunteer hearing children read, became a parent governor and then chair of governors for 18 months. When people at Highfield realised the potential of the empty space in the school - large first-floor classrooms standing empty due to falling rolls - it was the parents rather than the headteacher who began writing bids for funding.

"We went to meeting after meeting, thinking there was no light at the end of the tunnel," says Ms Hancock. But they persevered, and decorated the community room themselves. On the day of the grand opening of the new room, Ms Hancock's hands were blistered from carpet-laying as she shook hands with local MP Linda Gilroy.

The bid-writing began to pay off and, just as importantly, parents at Highfield determined what they wanted in the way of extra activities at school. Now the refurbished rooms on the first floor of the school buzz with community activity. Children come in from 7.45am for a breakfast club run by the Bright Sparks charity. Backed by a New Opportunities Fund start-up grant, Mandy Coath, who runs Bright Sparks, also offers after-school and holiday childcare at a price local parents can afford.

Next door, in the large and lovingly rag-rolled community room, there have been after-school IT and art classes for parents and children, and popular family literacy groups. The church holds a youth club here on Fridays after school, and Ms Hancock and other parents organise coffee mornings with parent governors on Mondays. Bids are in to get enough money to make disabled access possible and provide extra lavatories so the number of childcare places can be increased from the current maximum of 10.

A homework club is planned - homework is "a nightmare" for parents who lack the skills to support their children, says Linda Mercer - and for a pensioners' lunch club. The room is used for training and parties, and the action team has formed a registered charity, the Highfield Community Association. "It is about people feeling the school is theirs," says Ms Hancock.

She and other community activists have brought in pound;15,000 so far; currently they are bidding for pound;40,000 to create disabled access and other improvements to the buildings.

Pam Eden is a retired infant head in Plymouth and a member of the action team. She says that although she had extremely supportive governors and a strong PTA, she wishes she'd had this structure when running her school.

"It should have been happening forever." She reasons that without EPPa, day-to-day responsibility still ends up "back on the head's shoulders" and that this can add to the stress of the job.

If parents and others in the community must give time and energy to make EPPa work, schools must also play their part. It is vital, says Jean de Rijke, that schools using the toolkit are genuinely committed to the ethos of empowering parents. "Where it hasn't got off the ground is where the schools have held on to the reins. The head has to let go and trust the parents to take a lead role."

For more information on EPPa, contact Mosaic Educational. Tel: 01363 776230;;

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