It takes a village to raise a child

8th February 2008 at 00:00
The African proverb sums up the philosophy behind a five-year project being introduced at Fair Isle Primary, writes Douglas Blane.

Every state school teacher knows them. They are usually small and undernourished. They often have deep furrows in their foreheads. At best, they sit quietly uncomprehending; at worst, they cause mayhem. They are the children who can't learn because their heads are filled with anguish. They are the kids whose home lives are hell.

There is not much a teacher, no matter how skilled and compassionate, can do with youngsters like these. They have a life difficulty rather than a learning difficulty, and there are other pupils to be taught. So if these kids' inner turmoil keeps them quiet, that's fine. If not, they will be ejected - initially from class, eventually from school - and sent home to the chaos, violence and terror that is the cause of their problems.

These children may be casualties and victims. They might face bleak and unhappy futures. But in the education system they are nothing but trouble. Schools cannot solve family problems.

Rae Walker, headteacher of Fair Isle Primary in Kirkcaldy, disagrees passionately and profoundly with all this. "It takes a village to raise a child. That's an African proverb that says what I believe."

Templehall features frequently in Fife police bulletins - such as "Kirkcaldy targets drug dealers", January 18, 2008 - and the school has a free meals entitlement close to 50 per cent. This is no one's ideal village for raising a child. But that is the community the school serves, and that's what it must work with, says Mrs Walker.

"You can't do things in isolation. If we learn together - and play together - it strengthens family and school relationships. It lets us take life forward."

It's a philosophy that Fair Isle Primary has now turned into action with the help of a pound;500,000 Lottery award. Key components of the five-year project are a full-time family worker, shared evening classes for children and parents and an open-door policy that sees mums and dads coming to school whenever they want.

"The only time I would be here before would be to try to sort out problems," says Dawn Ellison, mother of four boys at Fair Isle. "Now I'm never out of the school. Even if it's a problem of your own, you are welcome to come and talk - and maybe shed a few tears." She squeezes the arm of family worker June Knight.

"I'm based at the school five days a week," says Ms Knight. "The parents get to know me well. You get a relationship going with them, and can refer them to other agencies for specialist help when it's needed."

As a very experienced family worker, in the voluntary and health service sectors, Ms Knight has never encountered a project quite like this one, she says. "You see kids and parents going home after evening classes, and they're laughing and joking and obviously having a great time together.

"Some parents I visit at home are now coming into classes, and that's a huge thing for them. The idea of coming to school, and having fun with their children would never have occurred to them before."

For Catherine Spiers, whose daughter is a Primary 4 pupil, there is a striking difference between Fair Isle and other schools she has known. "It was really strict when I went to school. You were terrified of teachers. Even as an adult it used to be, 'Oh gosh, I've got to go in for a parent interview'.

"It is nothing like that here. Mrs Walker is really down-to-earth. She is out in the playground often playing with the kids herself."

It is all part of building good relationships between the generations, says Mrs Walker. Twenty-five years of teaching in disadvantaged schools have convinced her that this is a vital part of improving life chances for children - and mums and dads.

"Some of our parents are pretty entrenched in a culture that sees no jobs, no future, no way out of the situation they're in. They don't have the confidence to pull themselves out. This project will help give them that."

Seemingly small things can make a big difference, says Ms Spiers. "I had a few reiki sessions and, because it was time for yourself that was really enjoyable, I went floating down the corridor. We're now doing circus skills with the kids, which is fantastic. We're putting on a show at the end of term."

Getting to meet other parents socially is appealing, says Angie Greig. "You're interacting with people, making new friends at every class. Cookery classes are good, because I couldn't cook before - it was freezer stuff in the oven for 20 minutes. I've made risotto, chicken curry, scones, rocky road cake - and that's all things I can make at home now.

"My favourite class is flower arranging. I've had three weeks of it and I'd like to go to college now and do it as a career. I'm going to enquire about that."

Ms Greig's son Jamie (P5) attends classes on his own and with his mum. "I go to art, flower arranging, writing, cookery, basketball and running. I like the cookery. You get to make scones and puddings and stuff," he says.

"It's hard to choose because all the classes are good," says Chelsea (P5). "I liked the flower arranging because the lady said I was really good at it - and I wasn't letting anyone help me."

For Harry (P7), the atmosphere of some evening classes appeals: "You get peace and quiet, especially with the board games."

Marti (P3) enjoys the football classes and the art - "because you get to make stuff". But the best part of it all, he says, is the extra time they give him with his mum.

Playing with your own children can be difficult, says Ms Greig, even just for practical reasons. "We live in a flat and there's nowhere for kids to play. There's a big field out the back but it's mostly waterlogged. So classes with your kids are great."

The third major component of the project - besides the full-time family worker and shared evening classes - is philosophical enquiry (see opposite). It's a discipline that builds valuable skills for the future, says Rae Walker. These include adaptability to change, working co-operatively, considering alternatives, disagreeing without falling out, and making informed decisions.

"In the consultation with parents and the small pilot we ran before submitting our bid, the philosophical enquiry classes had a very positive effect. Children started to be more thoughtful, better listeners, more self-confident and more accepting of others' views."

The official launch of Opportunities for All was in December, when local MP Gordon Brown - who also happens to be Prime Minister - made time to visit the school and every one of its classes. He commented in particular on the "far-reaching benefits" the project promised, to the school and the wider community, says Mrs Walker.

"At one point the kids had him signing their T-shirts. It was a really good day."

But some benefits of the project are apparent even now. "It's going to give so many opportunities to children and parents," says June Knight. "It has already been quite a journey for some parents, who are saying that for the first time they can see light at the end of the tunnel.

"By the time they go to secondary school, the kids we've been working with for five years should have the confidence and ability to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there."

Social workers are always busy in Templehall, but they don't get involved until there's a crisis, says Rae Walker. "I don't want crises. If I can get parents to come in and tell me they have problems and need help, I can then get June involved with the family.

"The child of that family is then going to have a better chance in life. That's what this project is about."

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