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Small steps for children, a giant leap for education

Fife's early intervention project, Stepping Stones, is striding towards raising primary pupils' achievements in literacy and numeracy by involving parents and local communities. Raymond Ross reports on three schemes which adopt different but complementary approaches

Three Primary 1 girls peer through the window of their storytelling hut. "We're the three bears." Of course they are. Stupid not to recognise them straight away.

If they are mummy, daddy and baby bear, then who are the two teddy bears they are clutching?

"Well, that's wee bear and that one's tiny bear," they agree.

The idea of the three bears' extended family is fitting for this classroom, which is used to having mothers, fathers, grandparents and even great-grandparents come along for the first half-hour of each day to play with the children and help them with their reading, numbers and drawing.

Soft Start is the name of the approach and it is part of Fife education services' early intervention project, Stepping Stones.

Stepping Stones began in October 1997 as a result of the Government's early intervention strategy. Although the project initially targetted areas of deprivation, the main focus now is raising expectations for every child.

The Stepping Stones philosophy recognises the important contribution of parents as the first educators. Working with parents as active partners, it aims to make children feel good about themselves, to feel confident about coming to school, to have the best opportunities for learning, to get a better start in reading, writing and numeracy and to have the support of home and school working together.

Soft Start began in 1998 and operates now in most Fife primaries, inviting parents into the classroom to participate in activities, talk with the teacher and generally find out more about their child's everyday life at school.

"It allows me to participate in the class with my daughter," says mother Karen Michie. "The kids love showing off the work they've done here to their parents. I come as often as I can. It lets me see what they do and I can try and carry it on at home."

In terms of traditional pedagogy, teachers used to react with trepidation to the idea of parents "interfering" in the classroom. Even Jill Burton, a class teacher at Kennoway Primary, admits: "I was worried before I'd experienced it, but I have to say it's excellent. It stops problems becoming issues. It breaks down barriers.

"I know parents on first name terms and we can talk informally about their child's education. You get to know their home life and if there are any concerns. You also get to know if it's the child's birthday and things like that.

"Children see you in a different light, as their mum's friend rather than just as a teacher. It's a different relationship for everyone."

Kennoway Primary uses Soft Start in P1 and P2 and next session will extend it to P3. Headteacher Jim Green explains his thinking.

"In nursery schools, in family rooms for instance, it's natural to have your parents around some of the time. Why should this suddenly stop at the age of five?

"It's about strong links. Nursery pupils come into P1 Soft Starts over the summer term. Their teachers come back in for a while in P1, on a sliding scale, till pupils get used to the new environment.

"Extending it upwards simply strengthens home links and gets parents more involved in their child's learning."

Not only are there parents in Mrs Burton's class this morning; some have brought their toddlers too. They're all learning through play, parents included, and there is an informal induction taking place for the toddlers before they even get to nursery school age.

Soft Start also involves a learning process for teachers. Janie Douglas, one of Fife's three early intervention community co-ordinators, argues: "If you want social inclusion you must have parental involvement and interaction, with teachers learning from parents as well as the other way round. They can pass on news about the child the teacher might not otherwise learn and it strengthens relationships between different groups of parents. Teachers get to know the pupils better through the parents."

Assistant headteacher Moira Haxton agrees, saying: "Parents are inclusive and will draw in pupils whose parents might not be there that morning. There will always be parents who find school a threatening environment and this operates to counter that perception. But we've never had a parent who's never come at all."

One morning a week the parents hold a coffee morning after the Soft Start half-hour. Especially at the beginning of a new session, relevant teachers are released to attend this to get to know the parents better.

The atmosphere over coffee today is relaxed with the same sense of fun which pervades the classroom. If you buy three parent-teacher association raffle tickets you're allowed to pinch a biscuit. Let's call it enterprise education.

At Woodlands Nursery in Methil, another Stepping Stones project promotes parental and community involvement in a wider and more structured way.

Books for Families began almost by accident. Community co-ordinator Janie Douglas had turned up at Woodlands Nursery to give a talk on early intervention, but had been billed as giving a talk on "Cooking to a Budget". After some initial groans, the parents began asking why there were few books about education for parents written in plain language. The results 18 months later are three books written largely by the parents but with the advice of educational professionals.

Writing is Fun, Reading is Fun and Number is Fun are continuously in print (print runs are 200 books each time). They are used by parents, by playgroups, schools use them for induction talks, and other education authorities, such as North Lanarkshire, are buying them. The parents involved in their production have addressed in-service training sessions for headteachers and class teachers, as well as for community education, social and health workers.

"The books were fun to do," says mother Morag Wilson. "They were done by the mums, grans and great-grans, though the dads were involved in reading and writing with the kids."

The lack of male participation in writing the books has not gone unnoticed. The Woodlands' publishing group of 20 parents is now planning a volume on the role of men in the household and a child's education, as well as one on play.

The books are reader-friendly and the advice is straightforward. Writing is Fun, for example, includes sections on How can I help my child become a confident writer? What has drawing got to do with being able to write? What are the stages in learning to write?

Suggested writing materials include not just paper and pencils but also dough or plasticine to make letters, washable felt pens, chalk, crayons, glitter pens, paintbrushes, old birthday and Christmas cards and spare wallpaper.

It recommends writing with children, explains "play writing" and how scribbles begin to mean something to a child, emphasises the use of praise, warns not to push spelling too early and concludes "Remember: WRITING is FUN".

Ms Douglas says: "These books show that good resources don't necessarily demand an education qualification.

"We can all learn from parents and all parents matter, not just the confident middle class ones. You must work with a cross-section of parents for early intervention to work and for social inclusion to have meaning and be effective.

"If schools are going to involve parents, they should also involve them in school bulletins and newsletters, giving them an input to the literature that is going into the homes of pupils," she adds.

Parkhill Primary in Leven has a community bookshop set up two and a half years ago. It has sold pound;6,000 of "quality" books to nursery and primary schoolchildren - at 20 per cent discount - in that time.

The lack of good quality bookshops in the area spurred the Parkhill parents into action. A Stepping Stones seedcorn grant of pound;200 was matched by a pound;200 donation from Books for Schools, the Walkers Crisps and News International promotion, which supplies the itinerant bookshop.

Pupils save up special stamps provided through schools for book fair days in the local schools. They supply "starter stamps" free to get the pupils into book-buying mode. Then book sales are timed for when pupils' savings are sufficient, but children without enough savings can browse and order for the next sale as well as buy pens. Parents are encouraged to buy with their children.

The Harry Potter series is a top seller, along with books by Roald Dahl. While the boys often opt for The Horrible Histories series, the girls choose Jacqueline Wilson. The Hobbit retains its popularity and A Midsummer Night's Dream has had a sale.

The scheme's success is perhaps symbolised by one pupil who gave up his weekly tuck money to save for the book he wanted.

"You can see how reading these books has influenced the pupils' writing," says Parkhill's depute headteacher, Christine Anderson. "The school gets a tremendous benefit from it and we give the parents all the support we can."

Run entirely by volunteers, the Parkhill set-up involves a parental management team of 15 with primary pupils soon to be co-opted on to it. The interest generated so far has led the community bookshop committee to look for shop premises, so there is a permanent outlet for the voluntary non-profit making enterprise in the Levenmouth area. And the modus operandi has now been transferred to other Fife areas, including Cowdenbeath, Benarty and Abbeyview (Dunfermline).

"Projects like this have to inspire," says Ms Douglas. "They have to be sustainable in the community and by the community.

"Educationally, what we are talking about here is promoting a tradition of reading which will benefit pupils and which hopefully they will sustain as adults."

For more on Stepping Stones, including books, contact Eleanor McMillan, project co-ordinator, Auchterderran Centre, Woodend Road, Cardenden, Fife KY5 0NE, tel 01592 414691

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