A reading project hopes to raise achievement from a young age through a partnership with parents. Estelle Maxwell reports.
Gill Hart relishes the chance to spend an hour's quality-time reading to her toddlers in the specially-equipped parents room at St James' primary school in Sefton, Liverpool.
The 29-year-old mother has four children aged up to six, and each week she brings two of them, Olivia, three, and Elly, two, to a Start-Right parent and toddler group where they mix with their peers, do role-play, read books and gain confidence.
"When I'm at home, life is really hectic. But coming here gives you the chance to sit down and talk to your kids, to realise that shouting at them does not have the same effect as sitting down and reading and playing with them for five minutes," she says.
"I have books at home but we've never bothered with them before. Now they like to choose which one to read and have really come on since we came here. I now relate what we read to our everyday life and realise Elly really likes books."
As the family read The Bear Under the Stairs all squashed on one armchair, their faces are a mixture of concentration and anticipation. Gill turns the pages and points to the pictures between tracing the text with her finger: "What is the bear sitting on there?" she asked. "A bath," they reply in unison, peering earnestly at the drawing for clues.
Four other parents and six toddlers hold a tea-party and draw pictures of dogs complete with speech bubbles saying "Woof", as well as other animals who have been invited to the party. The atmosphere is fun and throughout outreach worker Pam Donovan helps the mothers become aware of their skills and how to take them one step further. The weekly session for parents - mostly mums and grandmas - is one part of the Families and Schools Together (FAST) project aimed at raising levels of achievement through partnership with parents. It is funded by City Challenge and sponsored by the local authority.
The project is based in Bootle, an economically-depressed area on the north banks of the Mersey. Since its launch two years ago demand for places on its courses have exceeded all targets.
The scheme operates through word of mouth. Families interested in joining have a range of options, including courses and parent-child groups. They may initially receive four informal home visits from one of the resource centre's four outreach workers.
The workers play with the children using a selection of toys brought from the resource centre and each week leave some books behind for the next visit.
While in the home they aim to provide models for parents to draw upon, using their everyday environment, with ideas such as reading signs out loud and writing out shopping lists which their children can imitate.
Then parents may sign up for a 10-week programme of one-hour sessions in the parent rooms of the 14 participating primaries (three share one extensive facility).
Three years ago the scheme was given five years' funding - Pounds 750, 000 - from City Challenge secured on the basis of geographical need. Heads of some of the 14 schools involved say 80 per cent of their pupils have free meals, and seven out of 10 people in the area are unemployed.
However, Anne Bentley, project co-ordinator, is keen to dispel the notion that children in the area are educationally disadvantaged. "We believe this scheme has a universal application and do not regard it as a 'deficit' model," she says. "Irrespective of parental background everyone wants to do their best for their child. These parents are all offering rich opportunities for learning to their children in their everyday lives, but may not be aware of their importance for literacy development."
FAST works from the premise that parents are the key educators of their children with a role to play throughout their learning lives, and begins involving parents from the time their children are born.
Participating headteachers say that from this starting point wonderful home-school links develop, and barriers have been dismantled in a way which no one could have ever believed possible.
"We do not hold with the notion of illiteracy," explains Mrs Bentley. "A lot of our parents lack confidence and they do not see themselves as readers and writers.
"The message we give out is they do not necessarily need books in their home to be readers. They are reading all the time. Everyone has a level of literacy and we draw upon that."
The children's achievements at home are listed in a record which they take with them to school, and parents are encouraged to support theirchildren's literacy throughout primary school as well.
For many of the adults involved, the project has provided a second chance to get back into education. They regard the brightly decorated parents' rooms as their school-based centre.
Some have completed the Start-Right training course accredited by Merseyside Open College, others are on a parents as educators course.
Each school has a teacher responsible for developing parental partnerships and staff are offered INSET courses on literacy from birth through the primary years.
Some parents will eventually run baby and toddlers' groups, with input from FAST outreach workers who say the impact on parental self-esteem has been enormous.
Margaret Cook, project manager and Sefton's early years adviser, says it is too early to begin to evaluate FAST's impact in schools.
But she says the thinking behind it has already affected the local authority's approach to entry assessment.
Plans are also being considered to track the children involved, using interviews on entry to school and tests at seven, she says.
The emphasis on parental partnership carries through to the management structure of FAST. Parent and headteacher groups advise the project, and parent representatives join headteacher representatives on its steering group. One parent, Paddy Hogan, expresses the view of them all: "It's been a god-send, " he says. "Parents now know they matter, their aspirations have been lifted and they can help to lift those of their children."