Parents' involvement in their children's learning is vital to the success of pupils and schools alike. But what if cultural and language differences create a seemingly unbridgeable chasm? Wendy Wallace reports on one authority's attempt to close the gap
The minibus moves haltingly round the rain-splattered avenues of Banbury in north Oxfordshire, stopping every few minutes while Nazia Razaq jumps down from the front passenger seat to knock on front doors. After 40 minutes, she has assembled a dozen women in the back of the van, some dressed in gauzy scarves and sandals despite the autumn bluster.
Radio 1 soon gives way to a tape of Pakistani love songs, and the driver heads off towards a scout hut and sports ground just outside town. Ms Razaq is a teaching assistant at Banbury school, a comprehensive where 12 per cent of the 1,800 students are of Pakistani origin. Today's picnic - for that is the purpose of the collections - is part of an initiative aimed at strengthening understanding between the school and its Asian parents.
"This is a chance for them to practise social skills and get to know the teachers. Some of the mothers rarely come to meetings at school," says Tabassum Chaudhry, a teaching assistant at Banbury for the past three years. "There are language barriers, transport barriers. Few of the women drive and some are illiterate."
Most of the older generation in Banbury's tight-knit Pakistani community come from farming backgrounds; few of the mothers have had any formal education and many speak almost no English. All are keen for their children to succeed but some lack the means to get involved. "Some have babies, some work. Lack of contact shouldn't be interpreted as lack of interest," says Catherine Lee, Banbury's English as an additional language co-ordinator.
A recent report from the Campaign for Learning highlighted the significance of parental involvement in children's education; its impact is particularly pronounced at primary level. By age 16, one quarter of the attainment of top-scoring teenagers can be attributed to the interest parents take in their education. Parental involvement has eight times the impact of other class-related factors such as occupation.
Even if such research only confirms what many in education already suspect, it begs the question of how such involvement can be promoted. A Mori poll in 1999 found that 48 per cent of parents had not spoken once to teachers over the period of a school term.
While poor school experiences prove a barrier for many indigenous parents, having no experience at all of the English system can be an even bigger hurdle. Despite preparatory visits by the bilingual assistants, not all the invited mothers have answered positively to Ms Razaq's knock on the door, with several saying politely that they are "not ready".
Banbury made a start on improving home-school links with Asian parents some time ago, by employing bilingual assistants at the school. Ms Chaudhry, who also works as an interpreter for Oxfordshire county council, knows most of the families and is used to stepping in to help with applications for grants for uniforms, obtaining permission to go on holiday during term, or to intercede in exclusions.
But Asian girls rarely took part in outdoor pursuits, staff noted, and with English often students' third or fourth language, some teenagers underperformed right through secondary school. To address these problems, Banbury decided to increase support by providing events specifically for Pakistani parents.
Funded with pound;16,000 over two years with a DfES Building Learning Communities Development grant, Banbury's project aims to encourage literacy in students and their mothers, improve student attainment and foster home-school communication. Now in its second year, it was set up for mothers and daughters but now includes sons in its remit, and may inspire other schools wanting to promote communication with families in which English is not the home language.
The Banbury picnic begins, for the adults, with a talk in the scout hut by school's health nurse Pauline Nicklin, translated by Ms Razaq, Ms Chaudhry and Jameilla Mahmood, the third bilingual assistant. They translate in three languages while Ms Nicklin explains how to treat burns, discouraging traditional remedies such as putting butter or toothpaste on the wound. The women listen with varying degrees of interest; the children - brought by coaches from school - have disappeared outside to play. The smell of lamb kebabs drifts in from the kitchen while Ms Nicklin moves on to choking, nosebleeds and broken bones.
Some of the mothers ask questions through the translator or help out in the kitchen. Ms Razaq provokes hilarity by demonstrating the recovery position, feigning unconsciousness while continuing her translation.
Banbury's head of student services, Matt Hunter, introduces himself, as does head of lower school Julie Tridgell. The bilingual assistants help the other staff put children's names to mothers' (and aunts' and grandmothers') faces. "It's great for community liaison," says Ms Tridgell. (I am reminded of my former neighbours, a Bengali family with two children, 11 months apart in age, in the same class. It was years before their primary teachers realised the siblings were related.) Outside, the brazier is going; clouds of smoke fly by the windows of the hut. With the formal educational aspect over, everyone sits down to tandoori chicken, lamb kebabs, rolls and salad. The children are clearly enjoying themselves, and seem amazed to find their families and teachers together out of school. "You feel comfortable," says 13-year-old Nagina.
"We never have a time with all the Muslims, so you can make new friends."
Nagina's mother speaks no English. Does she come to parents' evenings? "If I tell her to," shrugs Nagina. "She hasn't been to any lately but I always read my reports to her."
Awkward goodwill gives way to the atmosphere of a family party, as children's poems are read out by Ms Lee. Adult conversation turns to the differences between education in the UK and in Pakistan. "It's better here but you learn more about our religion and culture at home," says Yasmeen Hussain. Originally from Kashmir, she has been here 13 years and has a son in Year 8. The sun comes out and everyone gathers outside for a group photo.
Naseem Hussain is the only parent present who attended school in Britain.
With two children at Banbury and another due to start nursery in the primary school where she works as a classroom assistant, she is at home in the system. But she too values this event. "One of the workers came to invite us," she says. "They are very friendly and it is good to know they value our presence and our opinions. And I didn't realise there was a student support service." The women take a "health walk" around the field before getting back into the minibus with their empty Tupperware to go home.
Banbury school's vice-principal, Graham Teager, acknowledges that such events provide for two-way learning. "Children speak a language at home that is not written, then go to mosque and learn Arabic," he says. "Then they come to school and we expect them to learn English. We're a huge school and if you're not careful, people can fall through the gaps. This is one way of making sure that doesn't happen. For us, it's a genuine desire to celebrate the diverse community of Banbury; our major concern is children's learning."
The Campaign for Learning's report Give Your Child A Better Chance can be viewed at www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk