Literacy for all the family

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Edinburgh has been leading the attack on poor literacy and numeracy standards among young pupils. But the city is also working to help parents. Seonag MacKinnon reports.

The initiative that dramatically boosted attainment in the reading skills of young primary children in the deprived Greater Pilton area to the north-west of Edinburgh, has diverted attention from a smaller companion project to raise levels of family literacy.

This is an adult basic education programme entitled Connect, which has a budget of Pounds 54,000 compared with the Pounds 200,000 spent to date on early intervention. Arguably of equal importance, Connect aims to make parents aware of their contribution to their children's learning, encourage greater understanding of how learning happens, establish greater home-school connections and stimulate adults to embark on further education.

Connect's Gary Roberts is philosophical about being overshadowed by its better known counterpart. "The impact we make is qualitative rather than quantitative. It is easier to measure achivement with children's reading levels."

Co-operation between the two groups was tentative at first, he says. "We were two professions trying to work together which had not done so before. Some heads thought we would be stirring up angry parents. Some teachers asked why we were there anyway and what did we know?

"There has been a split but we are winning people round. Now schools are positive. The value of what we do is beginning to be recognised."

Connect's status in relation to the early intervention programme was subtly underlined because the latter had evaluation built in, whereas Connect had to approach Moray House Institute of Education independently to ask for research. The subsequent report offers an explanation for the shaky beginnings "which have drawn energy and time into justifying Connect's existence".

Mr Roberts and colleague Alan Addison say they have written off the "teething problems" of the pilot project, which is based in Craigroyston Community High. Now they are looking forward to the expanded scheme which, albeit with only two extra tutors, will extend to 24 primary schools in the most deprived areas of the city, known as priority partnership areas, rather than the four in Pilton. The new targeted areas are in North Edinburgh (eight schools), East Edinburgh (six schools), South Edinburgh (five schools), and Wester HailesBroomhouse (five schools). The scheme may take off further afield too, as other authorities such as Fife and Highland have expressed an interest in adapting it for their purposes. The project is a model of family literacy promoted by an American academic Elsa Roberts Auerbach who dismisses approaches that concentrate on encouraging parents to replicate school activity in the home.

In Pilton, Connect has translated this into courses of six or ten weeks on topics such as aromatherapy and "learn how your kids learn at school". The latter has sessions about topics such as rhymes, alliteration and the alphabet, as well as the value of helping children learn from reading print on billboards and cereal packets. Other courses include getting to know computers and a letter-writing workshop.

Although there is an agenda at the beginning, parents negotiate their own curriculum thereafter. A parent's question in a discussion about children's books, "who writes these books anyway?", leads a group to write its own. An artist was hired to do illustrations.

On at least one occasion, Mr Addison says, those parents seemed to take over the Connect office, using photocopiers and computers. "It was amazing. They were empowered. It is a huge confidence booster when people are handed power."

Another group has written a play in the Edinburgh vernacular that is to be performed by their children's school. Health visitors give talks on how to encourage children to sleep and a counsellor from a drugs project may also give a talk. Members from the acclaimed Barri Grub food project, based locally, talk about healthy eating.

One of the most successful exercises involved a tutor going into a classroom to read a poem and inviting the children to write a poem at home with a parent or grandparent. Families have also toured Gorgie Farm, on the west of the city, and spent a weekend in Ratho, outside Edinburgh.

Contact between project workers and parents usually begins via a poster in the playground. Mr Addison describes leafleting as the hardest part of the job. "Some people don't speak to you and others say some awful things. Folk have antennae for people flannelling them and do-gooding.

"I'm not saying that a middle-class academic couldn't do the job but I think it helps that at one time Gary was a steelworker and I was a joiner. I was also born in Granton. They really like the fact that I know people they know. It is not hard for us to win trust, but it takes time.

"Every so often even I forget what it is like for the parents. We talked about creating the right environment for a child's homework: pick a quiet room and ensure good light. They tore me to shreds because it's not like that when you're in a small flat, getting tea for four kids and rushing out to your office cleaning job for 6pm."

Mr Roberts stresses that parents need to be handled with sensitivity, which was underlined by the project's insistence on obtaining their full agreement for co-operating in the preparation of this article. "We're trying not to use the term family literacy," he says. "It is the buzz phrase but has come to mean illiteracy and carries a huge stigma.

"It is a minefield. Parents may have had bad experiences at school and we're asking them to come back into education. We try to create a non-threatening environment and build social bonds to get over that fear."

Connect's records indicate that 243 parents, mainly women, out of a potential maximum of 900 registered for one of their courses during the pilot period. The Moray House report pointed out, however, that many may have dropped out after registration and some parents may be registered twice as they did more than one course.

Mr Roberts rejects suggestions that the project could be more effective if it targeted parents whose children are in most difficulty in the classroom. "That would isolate the parent and could imply that they are to blame."

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