First sure steps towards a learning revolution

25th June 2004 at 01:00
It's time to celebrate early-years successes. Margaret Lochrie writes

As the summer term winds towards its last, hot sluggish days, National Sure Start Month is still on sparkling form. With thousands of fun days and picnics, sponsored toddles, open days and exhibitions, together with VIP visits and prestigious conferences, there is a very public celebration of a programme which brings together health, education and family support in one package and seeks to provide the best opportunities for all children.

"Give them a great start" is the strapline for June's celebrations and although conclusive evidence on the impact of Sure Start on children's lives is not yet available, there's a clear sense that local programmes do support the development of children at risk of underachievement, are warmly welcomed by parents and can make a contribution to neighbourhood regeneration.

All of which leads to the question of how these gains might be sustained and the expectations of parents met, when Sure Start children go to school.

Many parents of older children revert back to the local nursery or pre-school for advice and help when a family problem arises. They see the staff as friends and helpers. Schools, in contrast, may be seen as too busy or too ready to heap the blame for children's behaviour on the shoulders of the parents.

This criticism may reflect unfairly on overworked teachers and over-stretched school budgets, and must be a source of frustration to many - but it may soon be a thing of the past. As the principles underpinning the Green Paper, Every Child Matters, bring health and care staff alongside teachers on school sites, a stronger family and community focus must emerge.

The Extended Schools initiative is part of this change. The evaluation of the 200 pathfinder schools, three-quarters of which were primaries, was published in April. The evaluators found a range of activities - most frequently childcare, out-of-school clubs, parenting support and adult education classes, as well as co-operation with a range of community organisations, including Sure Start. Longer term outcomes will take time to come through, but even within the short timescale for the pathfinder pilot, schools were finding evidence of improved attendance and attainment.

Interestingly, much of this work had been initiated prior to the pathfinder project. Pertinently, the authors ask if the question is not whether a school is "extended" but "where it sits within the territory of extended activities which concern all schools".

Could Sure Start become the model for mainstream schooling?

Funding is clearly an issue, but the model matches the clear evidence, offered by research, of the pre-eminence of the family as a context for learning and the critical relationship between parental education and children's achievement. It may be some way off, but not inconceivable to imagine a future in which compulsory schooling, as we know it, is replaced by a more fluid pattern of learning activities, embracing all age groups and in which parents and teachers co-construct learning solutions for the entire community.

Margaret Lochrie is a director of Capacity - a new public interest body for children's services, which will be launched in early July

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