Big brother is teaching you

29th November 1996 at 00:00
A Birmingham school has recruited older siblings to help improve the reading of children whose first language is not English. Maureen O'Connor reports on an inspiring success story. It isn't just mothers who should help children. Men should help too," says nine-year-old Shozzol with great seriousness. His friend Areeb nods sagely. "My sister Sonaina is coming along very well." Their six friends beam their approval.

This solemn and articulate group of eight- and nine-year-olds from Nelson Mandela School in Sparkbrook are repeating a performance they gave last night to 200 Birmingham teachers, explaining how the school's Young Teachers scheme works.

Sue Wilks, deputy head of Nelson Mandela, has taken paired reading at the school in a new and, she thinks, highly productive direction. In a neighbourhood where parents are not always literate in English, it has turned to older brothers and sisters to help their younger siblings to read and to enjoy books.

Shozzol explains that he is helping his four-year-old brother in the reception class, and his six-year-old sister at key stage 2. "I give my brother 15 minutes every night and my sister ten minutes because she is older. My big brother has problems with spelling, so I am helping him too."

Nelson Mandela is a community school in an attractive modern building. It has put a high priority on building strong links with its mainly Punjabi families. Classes for parents in English as a second language, curriculum workshops and parents' events have long been well attended.

But despite parents' keen interest in their children's work, the school felt that it was not succeeding in persuading parents to help their children at home. Some lacked confidence in English - but there was also a strong cultural belief that learning took place at school.

The school already organised paired reading between infant and junior classes in school and decided that perhaps this approach could be extended to reading at home. "The answer came to me as one of those flashes in the middle of the night," says Sue Wilks. "Family involvement in reading need not depend on parents having enough confidence to help. Why not hand over some of the responsibility to the older siblings?" The day after having the idea, she called a meeting at school for any child who felt he or she would like to help a younger brother or sister to learn to read. Thirty turned up. Their first priority was to decide what to call themselves. When the title Young Teachers Club was settled, the "conference", as the children decided to call it, proposed that each "teacher" would spend some shared reading time in school with a sibling and follow this up with a regular home reading session as well. Given that most of the children spend some time each day at the local mosque school, this was a heavy commitment.

Given this level of enthusiasm, the school staff committed themselves to making sure that the scheme was carefully planned, so that it did not turn out to be a flash in the pan. Arrangements were made for siblings to join up to read together during the daily ERIC (Everyone Reading in Class) session. And the staff worked out a system for rewarding the "teachers" by means of a series of certificates to be awarded to the older sibling as the younger one made a measured amount of progress.

The demand to join the scheme soon threatened to get out of hand, so Sue Wilks instituted a lunch-time club at which she planned to give her young teachers some advice on the best approaches to use. It soon became clear that the young teachers were just as good at advising one another. Was the most sensible time for an evening teaching session before or after mosque school? Was it before tea? Or after Home and Away? And was it permissible to persuade the younger child to cooperate with a sweet?

As the club took off, Sue Wilks soon realised that very interesting things were happening. Some of her volunteers were themselves on Stage 1 of the Special Needs register, but gained enormously in confidence from helping younger children. The group also split almost equally between boys and girls, a significant factor in a Muslim area where educational involvement is usually left to mothers, who are the family members least likely to speak fluent English. Their sons saw no shame in taking on a helping role and are beginning to comment quite forcefully that fathers - and even grandfathers - should be involved in children's education.

"We found we were watching our boys, possibly future fathers, involved in working with young children and proud of the effort. We were training for parenthood."

The twice-weekly meetings developed to provide a balance between sessions of discussion and self-help advice, and sessions devoted to making simple equipment that could be borrowed for use at home. Such was the impact on the neighbourhood that one or two parents came in to complain that their children could not take part because they had no brothers or sisters. The school then made efforts to find friends or neighbours who could offer similar help to only children.

The school now has 119 children working as young teachers, all proud owners of files in which they make notes on their sibling's progress. Not that being a young teacher is just about carrying a folder, Shozzal is quick to point out. "Teaching your family is a life-long job."

Everything is carefully monitored by the school. The results, says Sue Wilks, are beginning to show. In this year's national curriculum tests, more than one third of the school's seven-year-olds were on Level 3 - above average - all of them working in their second language. The gain in confidence for the young teachers is harder to measure, although the children, thoughtful and articulate about what they are doing, are sure it is real.

Sue Wilks says that the next move is to contact local secondary schools with a suggestion that their pupils should join the scheme. "We can offer similar accreditation for young people who are willing to respect the ideal of shared responsibility for developing literacy skills. If we build this training into primary and early secondary school life, we will offer the next generation of parents useful skills. They will learn that it's OK to do this now and it's certainly going to be OK to do it with their own children in future."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today