All home comforts

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Staff at an inner-city nursery are acquiring skills to teach adults in an on-site literacy centre. Su Clark reports.

Three years ago, Holmewood nursery in south London made its schoolkeeper redundant, leaving a two-bedroomed bungalow empty at the entrance to the site. It could be turned into whatever the school wanted - extra classrooms, a staffroom, a library. All the staff, including teacher Jill Pal, speculated. But headteacher Sue Donovan already had a vision, and it involved Ms Pal.

The facade of the old schoolkeeper's house offers little clue as to its new role. The front door is ordinary and the bell is as tuneless as any other. Yet inside, it is cosy, and welcoming - a safe, comfortable environment for the parents of Holmewood's children.

It is a place where parents can spend time with their children, learning to value what they do and say, and improve their own reading and writing. It is has become an extension to the school, but with a charming veneer.

Ms Donovan's vision was of a family literacy centre that would be like a second home for the families that attend her school. It had to be pleasant and accessible enough to entice parents to trek down the stairs of their estate blocks, toddler and pram in tow, to come in regularly.

The Lambeth Endowed Trust gave pound;5,000 and Ms Donovan set about transforming the house. Walls were painted in pastels, cushion were scattered around and pictures were put up. The result is two rooms for adult literacy lessons, a living room, kitchen and cr che. Ms Donovan even raised money for the garden so children can play outside.

She says: "Many of our parents are from a local estate which is a regeneration zone, or living in one-roomed bedsits with their children. Most left school as early as they could and have only the most basic literacy and numeracy skills."

She wanted to run courses for the parents while their children were in nursery. But she needed an adult education teacher. She turned to Jill Pal, who had been at Holmewood for 13 years but who had never taught adults before.

Ms Donovan's idea was that Ms Pal would take one day a week out of class to run the family literacy course.

"I had come back to teaching after my children had grown up," Ms Pal explains. "But as I had been out of the classroom for about 19 years, I had to retrain. So I did a Certificate in Early Childhood Education at Froebel in Roehampton."

At Holmewood, which was once a primary and is now divided into two large, open-plan rooms, she soon acquired more responsibilities than just teaching the children.

"I became language and literacy co-ordinator and I looked after the library. When Sue set up the literacy centre she asked if I would run the classes."

But first, Ms Pal had to learn how to teach adults. The go-ahead for the centre came at the end of summer 1998 and work started during the Christmas term. At the same time, Ms Pal started an evening course at Morley College, south London, for an initial certificate in teaching basic skills. It was tough going. At the end of the course she had to plan and run some of the adult classes at Morley, which took a further evening a week.

"When I asked her to run the literacy group I said it would be another string to her bow," says Ms Donovan. "But doing the course was a lot of work and she told me at one point that the string was killing her!" By January 1998, Ms Pal and the house were ready for the first intake. Funded by the Lambeth Education Business Partnership, the course would take 10 students through City and Guilds Wordpower, an accredited course in communication skills. There was a full quota for the first term: some were young mothers who had had their first children while still teenagers, others had English as a second language and still more had simply fled school as soon as they could, with a poor grasp of grammar and punctuation.

They were people who lacked confidence with languag and had difficulty filling out forms or reading to their children. few had ever used a dictionary. Ms Pal recruited them through leaflets, posters and even speaking directly to a couple she thought would enjoy the course.

"It is difficult to approach people for this sort of thing. One parent I talked to was very offended because she had A-levels," she says.

"Recruiting for the course is the hardest part. But commitment is also a problem. These women have families and homes to run. It is difficult for them to come every week and sometimes they don't come back after lunch."

Now into its third year, the programme is more accessible and fun than simply working through a course pamphlet. Ms Pal has also involved older children at the nursery. While babies and toddlers are looked after by the centre's two cr che workers, Julie Bateman-Chuah and Kumudu Wallahagodawatta, Ms Pal, another teacher, Emily Dean, and an assistant, Jan Simpson, work with the adults and the children. Ms Dean and Ms Simpson work at the centre one day a week so they have to plan each day a few weeks in advance.

"We concentrate on projects, such as making up stories, which involve the children. We did a puppet show last term, where the students made puppets and a theatre with the children," says Ms Pal.

"There are many similarities between teaching very young children and those who need help with literacy, but there are also big differences. I can't talk to my students the way I talk to children, and I have to listen and be supportive of their problems. I also have to give something of myself to them and share my experiences to get closer to them."

The parents also write short stories which they can read to their families. It teaches them to value what their children are doing at school because they know how difficult it is.

"There are some parents who look at a piece of artwork their three-year-old has done and tell them it is rubbish. I've even seen mothers putting artwork in the bin before they leave the school. But on this course we can make them understand how important it is to praise children."

Every piece of writing the students do is added to their files. But the course does more than simply increase their ability to read and write. Ms Pal is determined to let the students see what options are open to them.

"On my first day, Jill showed us all the prospectuses from the local colleges," says Natalie Brookes, a 20-year-old parent. "I want to go on to do something else when I've finished this."

Ms Pal also organises outings to galleries, colleges and bookshops. On a recent visit to Waterstones in Piccadilly, the students were each given pound;12 each to spend on books for their children. It was the first time some of them had ever been in a bookshop.

There is also an opportunity for any student to do a 10-week work placement at St Thomas's hospital or a library which, for some, will be the only work experience on their cv.

A further day of courses focusing on numeracy is about to begin. Ms Pal can already look back at some successes. Ms Wallahagodawatta was a parent at the school. With English as a second language, she lacked confidence in her skills and became one of the first students. She did a work placement at another nursery school before being appointed as paid cr che worker at Holmewood. Another student, Bharti Mehta, went on to do an access into teaching course and has now started a degree.

Even though Ms Pal is in the family learning centre only one day a week, it has become a huge part of her job. It has changed her relationship with many of the parents and children, bringing her closer to them. It has also created an opportunity to develop new skills. But most of all it has brought her satisfaction because not only has she seen the confidence of the people on the course increase but she has also seen an improvement in the development of their children in the cl

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