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Senior service

You can't buy experience. But in Hull a group of elderly volunteers are passing on the benefits of a lifetime's acquired wisdom for free - and transforming attitudes to older people, writes Mary Hampshire

When 78-year-old Joy Kingston-Splatt asked a group of 11-year-olds what they thought of old people, she was horrified by the reply. "They said we were a waste of space," she recalls. "And they meant it." She spent the next 20 minutes talking to them about how much the elderly and the young had in common: "Both groups complain no one listens to them. Our finances depend on others and people tell us we can't do things because of our age."

Mrs Kingston-Splatt, an ex-professional fundraiser with a crisp, BBC-style accent, was on a visit to Sir Henry Cooper secondary school, where she is a governor. She walked away from the school disheartened but - as an active member of the charity Age Concern - determined to act. So, in September 1996, she set up the Age Concern Hull volunteers school project, aiming to change young people's perceptions of older people, improve communication and understanding between the generations, and raise educational standards.

Her big idea had a modest start. Four elderly volunteers held 45-minute, one-to-one sessions for 34 pupils with reading difficulties at Sir Henry Cooper. But the project - visited by David Blunkett in 1998 - has become something of a phenomenon in Hull.

Now an army of 63 senior citizens - aged between 55 and 80 - works part-time in 25 primary and secondary schools across the city - and there's a queue of schools waiting to welcome them through their gates.

They provide much-needed help with paired reading; writing, basic numeracy and communication (talking about a hobby or interest); mentoring; monitoring absenteeism; running libraries; invigilating exams; supervising homework clubs and summer schools.And sometimes they just talk about their lives.

The volunteers - 70 per cent of whom are women - include retired teachers, a policeman, retailers, a marketing manager and women who've spent their lives as wives and mothers. Age Concern pays their expenses and Mrs Kingston-Splatt provides a brief induction before they are trained by the schools.

At Newland Avenue primary school, a group of children gathers round as Mrs Kingston-Splatt holds up wooden toys, and dresses a girl in Victorian nightgown and cap. It's part of her "bygones" talk, for which her props include old photographs, wooden clothes-washing tongs and a stone hot water bottle. "Can you imagine how people washed in those days?" she asks. "They used to empty hot water into a tin bath. And there wasn't enough clean water for every child."

At other schools, volunteers share personal stories. One woman talks about her experience of living through the Holocaust. A former fisherman talks about working on the Humber river. "One lady described how she learned to swim on two chairs as she had no access to a swimming pool. The children were gobsmacked and tried it at home," says Mrs Kingston-Splatt.

Age Concern Hull cannot use its core funds for a schools education initiative, so Mrs Kingston-Splatt secured a pound;6,000 grant from the Nuffield Foundation for two years in 1996 and a further pound;3,000 from British Petroleum Hull. The schools also raise funds. To recruit new volunteers Mrs Kingston-Splatt gives talks to employees on the verge of retirement. "I tell them senility does not come with their pension book. They've got 30 good years ahead of them and there's only so much gardening they can do," she laughs.

Mrs Kingston-Splatt had been a governor at Sir Henry Cooper - where 50 per cent of pupils are on free meals - for two years when a teacher drew her attention to a shocking statistic: 85 per cent of pupils read below their age level. She heard this around the time the pupils told her elderly people were "a waste of space". She says: "Some children are bright but cannot express themselves. Their parents do not value education, and the kids think school is optional. They watch a lot of television and have few family meals together. There's little verbal communication.

"We are also dealing with second and third generations who've never worked or who can't read. Or their parents are so busy they don't have time to study with them. These children need someone to listen to them. Teachers are so overworked they do not have the time."

The volunteers have eased the burden on teachers at Sir Henry Cooper significantly: between them, they give around 200 hours of their time a week. And the results are beginning to show. In the past three years, attendance has increased by around 14 percentage points to just below 90 per cent of the roll; and the number of GCSE students gaining five A*-C grades has risen by three percentage points over the same period, to 10 per cent. For a school such as Sir Henry Cooper, this is a dramatic improvement.

Kelly Rapley, 15, was struggling with reading 18 months ago. She wasn't interested in books, so Mrs Kingston-Splatt sought advice from her granddaughter and brought in teenage magazines. "I really liked that lady," recalls Kelly. "I was surprised when she turned up with Smash Hits. I hated reading aloud in class. But something has clicked. I'm much more confident about it now."

Since 1998, the school has had 22 volunteers dedicated to mentoring children with behavioural problems. Philip Rowan, 14, a bright but easily distracted student who used to play truant, says: "I like having a mentor. You can talk to them about anything."

Seven volunteers at Winifred Holtby secondary school have helped 100 pupils with literacy and mentoring. Jan Vogel, co-ordinator of behaviour support, says: "If you've got a child who talks to police and social services more than anyone else, it's a welcome change for them to meet someone like a grandparent whom they can talk to freely without feeling pressurised. I tell students that volunteers are giving up 45 minutes of their life for them when they could be at home or playing golf. Most are very receptive."

Lee Brayshaw, 12, who attends Winifred Holtby, has been seeing a mentor for three months. He says: "I chucked a chair in science class and I lose my temper if the teacher blames me for trouble. Seeing an older person calms me down."

Sir Henry Cooper's headteacher, David Bird, says the Age Concern Hull volunteers have had "a massive effect". He adds: "They have wisdom, experience and a different perspective on learning. They are not seen as authority figures but as surrogate grandparents and as confidantes. They can defuse situations because they have no baggage. One pupil on the SEN register would blow up in class and run away. Now he's doing five GCSEs and can handle his temper.

"We often suffer from vandalism in the school holidays. I used to have a pound;40,000 budget for it but came back from the summer holiday this year to find not one window broken. Schools don't have problems; communities have problems. By involving the community, we are slowly trying to change the school."

But what do the volunteers gain? "At first," admits Mrs Kingston-Splatt, "the pupils thought we were mugs. They could not believe we wanted to help without getting paid. We get pleasure from making a difference, from learning new skills and the daily contact with the children, especially for those of us who live alone."

Mother of four Maureen Ford, 59, who used to work in hotel management, has taken paired reading and been a mentor to four children at two secondary schools for two years. She is also disabled. "It's so nice to feel useful," she says. "There's a lot of talent among older people, but society ignores us. This work gives me the push to get out of my wheelchair.

"I go from being an old lady to being a friend. Sometimes the children try to shock me about things like sex. But I try not to appear fazed even though we never discussed things like that in my day. Others are embarrassed, and stutter and shuffle about during the first session of mentoring. But by the second or third session they relax."

Barbara Chase, 61, has worked as a shop assistant and has two grown-up children. She says: "I'm the sort of person who likes to keep busy and I was glad to get out and work in a new environment. It certainly keeps the old grey cells going."

Mrs Chase runs the Sir Henry Cooper library three full days and two half-days a week. The teacher in charge of the library taught her how to reference and issue books and how to check which ones are overdue. Now she also buys books for the school.

"The teacher had no time to open the library at lunch or after school. But now the kids can do their homework there and use the computers. If I have spare time, I'll also read with them. No one forces me to do it. I enjoy it. Very few of the students call me Mrs Chase. It's always Babs."

The daily contact has broken down prejudices and now some of the teenagers are giving something back. They deliver shopping or newspapers and tidy the gardens for some of volunteers. "They seem to have accepted us," says Mrs Chase. "They realise we are not horrible old biddies. We have a laugh and a joke with them just like anybody else. It's a two-way thing. It helps us stay young."

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