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New vehicle for the literacy drive

From next session, a bus initiative in Aberdeen hopes to pick up children and parents and get them reading. Following up last week's cover story, Elizabeth Buie talks to the driver

The wheels on the bus go round and round for the P1s as they sing along in Jenny Watson's school in Aberdeen. Her journey to create a reading bus for children has been a long and winding one and the wheels have nearly come off a couple of times. In August, however, it will finally be ready.

There will be wheelchair access, a horseshoe-shaped seating area for storytelling, two information technology workstations, an area for displays, a sink area for creative arts literacy work, a snug reading area for two and even a dance mat that teaches Spanish.

The bus will park outside schools, libraries, supermarkets and community centres - anywhere that families are likely to be tempted to climb on board.

The idea of the reading bus germinated while the depute head of Hanover Street school was on a leadership in industry course at First Bus in Aberdeen.

"I saw the learning bus equipped with computers that they operated for employees," says Mrs Watson. "Speaking to workers on the bus, I realised there were employees who had never seen a mouse before. No way would they be happy or comfortable going to a college or a school for evening classes.

But the bus was fun and not threatening."

Despite a number of literacy initiatives in her primary school, there were a small group of parents that staff still found hard to reach. So the reading bus idea was leapt on by the staff, who saw the potential in a project which targets families as a learning unit.

From there, Mrs Watson started speaking to key figures in the education authority and various organisations. Her business plan for the initiative was an element of her work towards the Standard for Headship.

She was seconded in August 2004 as the Reading Bus co-ordinator and embarked on a learning curve, faced with fund-raising, marketing and working with cross-sector partners.

Her initial aspiration had been to provide a reading bus just for Hanover Street school, but when she realised the costs, it was clear it would have to be a resource for the St Machar learning community, incorporating one secondary school, 10 primaries, three nurseries, an English as an additional language unit and a unit for hearing impaired children.

The original fund-raising target was pound;60,000, but that rose to Pounds 120,000 when it was realised that, rather than adapt an old vehicle, a new one would have to be built. In addition to that was pound;20,000 for resources.

"Had I known that at the start, I would not have done it, but having done it, I would not have missed it," says Mrs Watson.

"If someone had driven up with a bus and said 'Here you are', it would just have been a school porject. Now it is very much a community project and there's an important difference."

She describes the contribution of the family learning team as "invaluable".

"They are working from school but very much with the families. This is a social deprivation area. Their approach is very different from the normal approach in schools. The balance of power is quite different.

"The family learning team takes them out on literacy trails to a forest or does sessions even on a Saturday. They are trying to find out which parents need help, but it's done in a softly, softly, non-threatening way."

The creation of the Primary Enterprise Reading Bus Committee, made up of representatives from the 10 St Machar primaries, has involved pupils in the initiative, helping with fundraising, marketing, designing and giving presentations about the bus.

The committee has held meetings in the boardrooms of some of the main companies in Aberdeen. One of the first was hosted by the accountancy specialists Ernst and Young, and the tax director and another director asked to sit in. Mrs Watson and Seaton school teacher Isobel Sylvester felt slightly apprehensive, Mrs Watson says, but the children took it in their stride.

"If you give children the right platform and something they can talk about, which was the reading bus, they are comfortable interacting with adults at any level.

"After the meetings, they went back to their schools and delivered presentations to assemblies."

The pupils' increase in confidence and self-esteem has a knock-on effect on their overall engagement in learning, Mrs Watson says.

From the perspective of her own development, the initiative has allowed an opportunity to work with partner agencies. "That's been a real development for me and a steep learning curve to find out what they are doing.

"Like a lot of teachers, I've been to school, college, back to school. My whole life has been school.

"The secondment has been about fund-raising and giving presentations and asking for money. I've got better at that, but I used to find it so nerve-wracking. I was used to being the one holding the power. This was a complete role reversal."

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