When we in Lancashire's Parental InvolvementRaising Achievement Project talked to the primary school class of '79 about their children's schooling and what part they could play in it, the parents obviously did not really know what schools were trying to do or how they could best help their children - although, of course, they wanted to help.
Then the parents took part in an eight-week Parents as Educators course. They spent two hours a week working in school with a member of staff, and two hours a week planning and evaluating. They also prepared a portfolio of evidence for accreditation by the open College of the North West in Lancaster.
Here are their stories. They are real people but their names have been changed.
At school John was described as a likeable rogue. He was never in any serious trouble but always on the fringe. He looks vastly different now. He wears his hair in a ponytail and has tattoos and an earring.
He fathered a child in his early twenties and has had little to do with his son since except occasionally to take him to a football match and for a burger afterwards. Recently, to his horror, he was given custody because the boy's mother had to go into hospital. The visit to the primary school was the first time he had set foot in a school since he had been asked to leave.
While John was registering his son for school the head asked if he would like to take part in a Parents as Educators course. Fearing that his son would not get a place if he refused, John reluctantly agreed. He duly enrolled and, as he later said, "hung his nuts up on the first day and never looked back!" He decided to do gardening with the children. This he felt was less threatening than academic work. He started off by making a bird table with his son at home. This was an achievement in itself because they had to go to the library and find a book on how to make it, estimate the amount of wood and materials needed, then finally work together to make it.
He arrived on the first day with the bird table, positioned it in the garden, hung his nuts on it and proceeded to plan and create a garden with small groups of children. Not only did the children work in the garden but they put up displays showing their plans. John begged, borrowed (and maybe stole) plants from market garden centres. because of his reputation, no one dared to vandalise the garden.
On the day I visited, I asked his son what he thought of his dad helping in school. He said he was very proud of him and other children wished they had a father like John. However, he had disgraced himself on the school trip to the history museum.
Apparently John had found taking a party of children out for the day extremely stressful. He spent the whole day counting his group and finally,when they were listening to a talk, he sought the opportunity to have a crafty cigarette in the toilet. This set the fire alarm off and he was escorted out, red-faced, to the amusement of his charges. John is now about to enrol on a parenting skills course.
What has John learned from being involved with his son's school?
* Where to go for help and support if he needs it.
* The aims and objectives of the school.
* How every activity in school is linked to the national curriculum and has educational value.
* That he can be a positive role model to his son.
Susan is a doctor from a long line of medics. She enrolled on the course because she had a hidden agenda: she thought the school should be setting more homework in the form of 100 sums each evening.
We suggested she join in water play with the reception classes. Susan was horrified by this and could not see any educational value. However, after a few weeks her opinions changed. She quickly came to realise that water play was the start of early maths and science, that children learned though activities, and that predictions and outcomes could be recorded.
She came to value the role of the staff in the school, becoming aware of the time needed to plan activities and of the importance of involving families in practical activities. Her comment at the end of the course was that she had never before thought of bath-time as educational. Susan is now following a second Parents as Educators course focusing on literacy.
What has Susan learned?
* That young children learn through play and practical activities.
* That homework does not have to be pages of sums.
* That teaching is more time consuming than she realised.
Andrea is a traveller who had little education herself but wants better for her children. Being unable to read and write, she was apprehensive about working in school and chose to help in the nursery class.
What she lacked in academic skills she made up for in the creative work she produced with the children. she produced a portfolio of samples of children's work and photographs of the displays. She accompanied the file with a tape explaining her aims and objectives for each activity and how they had been linked to the Government's targets for five-year-olds.
The file was duly accredited and she gained Open College credits. She then went on to take part in the family numeracy scheme which focuses on practical activities for parents to do at home with their children. Andrea is now helping to produce packs for traveller families.
What has Andrea learned?
* That however lacking your own education might be you can still support your children in different ways.
* That it is never too late to learn.
We need to remember that between the ages of 4 and 16, children spend only 15 per cent of their lives in school and that parents have an important role to play in the co-education of their children. It is important that schools give parents the support and information they need to become partners in the quest to raise achievement.
Cath Poole works for Lancashire County Council