Gran and grandad go back to the classroom

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Older people with time on their hands and stories to tell are in demand, reports Judy Mackie.

It's only 10 minutes from lunchtime, but food is the last thing on the minds of the primary 7 pupils at St Peter's Roman Catholic primary school, Aberdeen. They're sitting in a huddle around a very special visitor they remember well from last year, listening with rapt attention to his wondrous tales of life among the fisherfolk of Footdee during the early part of the century.

Expressions of amusement, disgust, incredulity and sympathy flit across their young faces, as 87-year-old Ted Munro delves into his treasure trove of memories and brings forth gems of information.

"Of course, we'd sleep in the clothes we wore during the day. We didn't have things like pyjamas or duvets, you know . . .

". . . the men worked hard at the fishing, but the women worked even harder, washing, cleaning, cooking, looking after the family, mending the nets, smoking and curing the fish.

"When I first went to school, I went barefoot like many of the other children, but the headmaster soon saw to it that we got boots for the cold weather. "

His ancient mariner eyes holding the children enthralled, Ted goes on to relate stories of monstrous waves, terrifying storms which wrecked ships and whole communities, and the freezing conditions on board a fishing boat during the 1920s.

He talks quietly, in his native Doric tongue, thoroughly enjoying his role as raconteur. It is his third visit to St Peter's as a volunteer and to the pupils and staff, his kindly, weathered face is as welcome as that of a favourite grandparent.

Ted is one of dozens of older volunteers throughout Scotland who regularly visit their local schools, offering a wealth of experience and skills which enhance the classroom experience for both children and teachers. First-hand knowledge of local history, baking and craft-making expertise, skills in librarianship, music and story-telling, and - most important of all, the willingness to spend quality time with children - are among the colourful variety of resources available to schools which open their doors to the "third age" generation.

Engage Scotland, a Government-funded Age Concern Scotland project which promotes the benefits of older volunteers in all sectors of society, says that hundreds of opportunities are available in education.

Margaret Morton, the project's co-ordinator, is particularly enthusiastic about this opening. "There are some wonderful examples of schools in Scotland, mainly primary, which have developed strong and mutually beneficial relationships with older volunteers from their local community. We believe there is great potential for this to happen on a more widespread scale, in nursery, primary and secondary schools throughout the country." Engage Scotland has now embarked on an awareness-raising exercise for headteachers and teaching staff, which includes practical support in the form of a comprehensive 80-page handbook on Engaging Older Volunteers in Schools.

The handbook is based on detailed research into good practice by a national working group of educationists and community development professionals, who consulted widely with councils, teachers and the teaching unions on the issues involved in inviting older volunteers into schools.

Each issue - from introducing the idea to teaching staff, planning roles and resources and ensuring compliance with pupil safety and child protection procedures, to selecting and supporting the volunteers and carrying out evaluation - is covered in a straightforward, step-by-step format.

Also included are possible problems and suggestions as to how to address them, examples of useful resource materials, case studies of individual schools, and volunteer agency contacts throughout the country. "One of the most crucial things to bear in mind when a school is thinking about engaging older volunteers, is the attitude of the staff. The project will simply not work without the enthusiasm and goodwill of the teachers involved," Margaret Morton says.

Anne Lyden, St Peter's senior teacher, says: "These particular children haven't seen Ted for nearly a year and it's marvellous how much they have remembered of what he told them about his early life during his last visit. His first-hand experience has really brought the subject to life for them and I personally am learning a lot from what he has told us. It's a privilege to have him here."

Ted, who was "discovered" by Aberdeen City Council cultural services education officer David Atherton, is an eager contributor to the council's oral history projects. He is charmed by the children's attention and by the 25 chatty letters he received following his last visit. "I find this is a good way of keeping my memory active, and I'm learning from the children about how they live today, just as much as they are learning from me telling them about the past."

For a copy of the handbook, or more information on engaging older volunteers in school, contact Margaret Morton on 0141 554 2211.

Engage Scotland estimates around 60 schools in Scotland operate volunteer schemes, such as: * Ancrum Road primary, Dundee: 15-20 older adults visit as guest speakers, mostly as part of the environmental studies programme. They share their knowledge of past events and give the children the chance to develop their interviewing techniques.

* Edinbarnet primary, Clydebank, Glasgow: The "Golden Girls" come from a neighbouring home one afternoon a week to read to the infants. Some work in class one morning a week, helping with number work, reading and computers.

* Glenlee primary, Hamilton: One lady operates the weekly lending library. The local Elderly Forum talks to P5 about the concerns of the elderly.

* Hillside School, Cumnock, East Ayrshire: Hillside is a school for children with complex learning difficulties. Volunteers now offer support throughout the week. Most are women aged 60-70.

* Lochgelly High, Fife: 30 older volunteers have been involved in visiting pupils on work experience, assisting with a community drugs awareness evening and conducting mock interviews for all S4-S6 pupils (which involved the local Rotary Club).

* Lumsden primary, by Huntly, Aberdeenshire: Projects include a local village study, the Second World War, a Scots Night concert, granny's attic, Scottish country dancing, ScotsDoric poetry, bulb planting and energy-saving and litter campaigns.

* Quarryhill primary, Aberdeen: A paired reading project involves volunteers visiting the school for an hour a week, to read with three pupils individually. Certificates are awarded at assembly.

* Sighthill primary, Edinburgh: Gardening, baking, remedial help, playing the piano, Scripture Union, setting up the new library.

* Tomintoul primary, Moray: Sewing and craft skills. Volunteers have given a tour of the village and its past. Pupils then made up songs.

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