Last week, the rhetoric about partnership with parents moved a step nearer to becoming a reality. The Labour Party published its long-awaited policy document, Early Excellence - A Headstart for Every Child, and spelled out its commitment to supporting parents "as the child's first and enduring educator". At the same time, Leeds Education 2000 launched its Home Early Learning Partnership (HELP) pack.
Leeds Education 2000 is committed to life-long learning; it is not looking for quick returns on its investment. The pack is based on an innovative parenting project at four nurseries attached to inner-city primary schools. The project is a partnership between the local education authority, Leeds Education 2000 and local schools, aimed at increasing parents' confidence in their own skills and giving children under three a good start.
The HELP pack is designed to support nursery and primary school staff who want to set up similar projects. It includes a short video, a getting started guide, and an evaluation report. The video, which has some technical shortcomings, shows examples of group work with parents in home- and school-based settings. The brief guide has a number of chapters outliningthe project's ideology and methodology.
It also has practical sections on setting up toy libraries and activity packs, fund-raising, recruiting and training staff, and evaluation techniques. Increasing parents' awareness of the use of toys and books is a central theme of the HELP project, so this chapter is particularly strong.
The guide has a great deal to offer practitioners who want to work with parents and need to develop strategies for working together with other agencies, voluntary organisations and the local community.
Both the guide and the evaluation booklet give an honest account of the partnership project as it developed in four different communities. The authors acknowledge that it takes time to build a relationship based on mutual respect and which recognises the strengths and contributions of all the participants. They make it clear that parents welcome a personal approach and that there is more than one approach to a parenting project.
HELP staff in each school had to make a local diagnosis which reflected the needs of their particular community. Some parents got involved in small discussion groups and met in each other's homes. The group leader, a nursery nurse from the local school, attended these home groups and acted as a facilitator and provided resources to support the children's play. Other parents preferred to meet in the school setting. The schools involved should be commended for recognising the skills and talents of the nursery nurses who ran the project, which has now been extended (the original four schools value it so highly that they are prepared to fund half the costs from their own budget). These schools recognise that parents have a crucial role to play as their children's primary educators. They understand that young children achieve more and are happier when early-years educators work together with parents and share views on how to support and extend their children's learning.
Both the parents and professionals on the video are clear that there are worthwhile outcomes for children and parents. The children made friends, settled better in nursery, learned songs and rhymes, and benefited from the carefully chosen toys. Parents grew in self-esteem, shared anxieties, made supportive friendships and got more involved in the schools.
The parents' experience was not entirely positive, however. Although the HELP materials begin by acknowledging that these days there are too many experts telling parents what they should be doing, at times they fall into the same trap. At times the HELP workers struggled to engage parents and to sustain their involvement. The evaluation report ruefully reflects that "in general, the attempts to 'empower' parents as first educators . . . were not an unqualified success; the power balance between schools and parents remained an issue throughout".
Projects that aim to impose things on parents are generally less effective than projects where parents are intrinsically motivated and feel they are doing things for themselves. Real partnership involves power sharing and creating, in the words of Paolo Freire, a "language of possibilities" for parents.
Margy Whalley is director of research, development and training at the Pen Green Centre for Under Fives and their Families, Corby, Northants