It looks like any mother and toddler group: a borrowed room in a school, a few toys spread on the floor, small children chewing pieces of bun, mothers pouring tea in the corner. But when the women sit in a circle, their children clambering over them, and Alison Street, the group leader, begins to chat with them, it is clear that there is a rather different agenda here.
"In our yellow books, we've been looking at how children learn about numbers, one and two, and how they often do this by pointing," she begins. "Has anyone got anything to tell us about what new things their child is doing, or things they have enjoyed doing together?" This is the PEEP project (Peers Early Education Partnership), operating in south Oxford since last September, which aims to boost children's educational achievement by working with their parents.
The mothers talk about how their one and two-year-olds are pointing; how they copy what they see other people doing - before the conversation moves on to the more general matter of potty training. Then there are songs, with opportunities to count and point, and lots of actions. A story follows, about animals and counting, a big box of books appears and the children all choose something to read, cosily, with their mothers in the circle. The hour-long session ends with more songs, and more tea, and the families leave with a new book and toy to borrow, and the chance to buy a counting book half price.
"It's a bit different from a toddler group, because you have to put more effort in - you really have to join in with them," says Tracy, with 13-month-old Lucy.
Lynne, mother of Oliver, 15 months, and Heather, 3 (siblings can come too), says the main benefit is seeing all the new books - "specially for someone like me, who is not a book reader. Now I'm even beginning to recognise authors. "
PEEP was originally conceived by Peers Upper School headteacher, Bernard Clarke, and governor, Michael O'Regan, because 46 per cent of children entering the south Oxford school at 13 were two or more years behind. The project is focused on Blackbird Leys, Littlemore and Rose Hill, all disadvantaged areas which feed Peers.
The five-year aim is to work with as many local children aged up to seven as possible: there are about 2,500 at any one time. It will cost Pounds 1 million, more than half of which has already been raised from the Challenge Fund (formerly the Single Regeneration Budget) and from charitable trusts.
A year into the project, more than 200 under-fives and their parents are taking part, most of them in "Baby Peep" (for up to 12-month-olds in community centres or church halls), or "Big Peep" (groups for three-year-olds, often operating within playgroups). "After-school story times," for five to seven-year-olds, are now underway in infant schools, while "Small Peep" (one to two-year-olds) and "Nursery Peep" (for four-year-olds, operating in nursery classes), are still in their pilot stage.
Alison Street says it has taken time to find the right tone and approach for the partnership with parents. "At the beginning, we were much more covert, because we hated the idea of being patronising, but now we are more explicit in talking about the PEEP curriculum," she says.
This curriculum, central to the project, builds on a framework developed by Peter Hannon at Sheffield University which highlights the importance of parents' supporting and extending children's opportunities for learning, recognising their achievements, interacting with them, and providing, in educational terms, a model they can emulate. It encompasses oral language, reading, writing and numeracy, as well as the development of self-esteem ("self-concept") and the importance of wanting to learn ("dispositions").
Parents receive their own, much simplified version of the curriculum in a yellow book - the intended equivalent of the widely-used, red personal child health record in which they also record their own observations of the child.
As the project matures, parents will also get the chance to train to be group leaders; some already work as group assistants.
"The danger of a project like this is that the more precarious parents might feel they are being told what to do," says Rosemary Roberts, co-director of PEEP (with Bill Laar, a former Westminster Council chief inspector), and a former nursery school head.
"But we are focusing on them as the most crucial people in their child's learning; we are recognising that explicitly, and saying to parents, you know more than anyone else about your child. We are trying to share information with them about helping their child learn - which they can use if they want to."
Recruitment has not been as straightforward as Rosemary Roberts originally supposed. At present, PEEP only hears about half of the babies born within its catchment, largely through health visitors. These families are then approached by its home-visiting team. The situation may improve when PEEP begins recruiting directly in the maternity ward of Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital.
Fathers are thin on the ground in PEEP groups - those who do turn up usually take fright at being the only man there - and ethnic minorities are less well represented than they might be. At Pegasus First School in Blackbird Leys, about 10 parents usually come to the weekly PEEP meeting, joined by half of the nursery class. They begin, without the children, with some hard talking about what PEEP is offering their four-year-olds.
"We know from studies that children who know what letters sound like when they start school will be better readers; so it's really worth trying to get that," Rosemary Roberts tells them, determinedly explicit but general. The mothers take home sheets on different letters of the PEEP alphabet - even though the previous week one mother admitted to having "binned" hers - which give ideas for things to do at home.
This is an specially-devised alphabet in which each letter lends itself to games and activities that children enjoy and which they learn to associate with that letter.
Then, in the classroom, there are songs (including PEEP's alphabet song) and stories with Alison Street, the mothers sitting on the floor with their eager-eyed children.
"I think it's really good, and the children look forward to it," says Elizabeth Bishop, the nursery teacher.
"It's nice to have the parents in, and we're hoping to take up their alphabet, and the alphabet song. It's good to have some new ideas. It would be nice to have more of it really."