With traditional industries almost wiped out, an innovative Valleys project introduces schoolchildren to the world of work Andrew Mourant reports
Nine-year-olds Christopher Williams and Anthony Page might still be struggling to read were it not for Janice Booth, their mentor from the nearby chicken factory. Other pupils at St Peter's primary, Blaenavon, have reason to be grateful to their neighbourhood postmen and a group of local grandmothers.
All hands are on deck to raise literacy standards and self-esteem across Torfaen, an area of south Wales near Pontypool that has endured long-term industrial decline. But when mentoring links were first created by Business in the Community Cymru (BITC) between employers and schools, there was apprehension. Mentors were an unknown quantity - some teachers feared the presence of outsiders could undermine them.
But the scheme has bedded down and enthusiasm has spread. Now, Torfaen has asked BITC to arrange a further 12 programmes in addition to the current six.
When mentoring began to link St Peter's, Sun Valley Foods and the Royal Mail, it also triggered interest closer to home. Grandmothers began to volunteer, among them Anita Styles, a former warden in a home for the elderly.
Styles moved from London a few years ago to be near her family and got caught up in Blaenavon's community spirit. "The difference is remarkable - everyone talks to you," she says. "I enjoy coming here and listening to the children read. I'll do it for as long as I'm needed."
While she is only due to be at St Peter's once a fortnight, Sun Valley production manager Janice Booth turns up every week. She is the ideal mentor, having completed a City and Guilds in teaching adult literacy. "I've helped a couple of lads who worked for us with reading. One of them couldn't even write out a cheque to begin with," she says. Booth was assigned to help Christopher Williams. "He was very shy when we first started but is now showing much more confidence," she says. "He's quickly come from reading books with large letters to normal books."
Christopher is still quite reserved, but when huddled up at a table with Booth in the school's crowded corridor, a copy of Clogpots in Space in hand, he is clearly enjoying himself. "She's helped a lot - I'd like her to keep coming," he says.
Around 15 per cent of St Peter's 243 pupils are benefiting from mentors. For withdrawn children or those with learning difficulties, a one-to-one relationship is ideal. They get the individual attention that a hard-pressed classroom teacher cannot afford to give.
"The children feel their efforts are being valued," says Meyrick Rowlands, St Peter's head. "Yes, there were reservations when it started. Butwe made conditions: that the mentors would be directed; that they would not teach, but listen. It isn't just about reading, it's about giving the child an audience." New mentors are also briefed by Business in the Community.
Booth, the grandmothers, the postmen coming straight from a shift in working togs, have all played a part, each mentoring three or four pupils. Torfaen recognises that it is on to a winner; the trick is to get more business involvement.
Nine local organisations have taken part so far, including Gwent police and a branch of the Inland Revenue. "It brings pupils into contact with working life and gives businesses a link to their next generation of employees," says John Turner, executive member for education on Torfaen Borough Council.
The message from St Peter's is that the mentoring link can be the start of bigger things. Says Rowlands: "Sun Valley has been very generous - not only with time but, thanks to them, we've also been able to buy new lockers and storage units." Here, at least, is one hard-pressed community being given a leg up.
Contact: Business in the Community Cymru; Aggie Rees-Tyler, business development manager. Tel: 02920 483348.
A few miles down the valley at Cwmffrwdoer primary, mentors have been getting to grips with the school garden. Built 16 years ago, the garden is now the centrepiece of the school, transforming what was once a mundane courtyard with a dull combination of paths, flowerbeds and shrubs.
And this school is a shy violet no longer. Cwmffrwdoer's mentoring team, from Eastern Valley Housing Association, has administered a severe dose of Ground Force treatment. Once the garden hardly merited a second glance, but now it shouts "seaside" with its sand, shingle, decking and murals.
The makeover, which began as a Business in the Community Cymru idea for strengthening links between Cwmffrwdoer and Eastern Valley, would most probably have cost the school pound;5,000 in labour and materials.
"We saw it as an opportunity for team-building. Eight to 10 of our people are involved in the work," says Eastern Valley chief executive Mark Gardner.
Apart from brightening up the place, the seaside theme was chosen by head Chris Long to fit in with the national curriculum. Eastern Valley has also recruited art students from Colleg Gwent in Pontypool to paint murals of waves and marine life.
In its earlier life, the garden was somewhat more costly to maintain. "It wasn't well designed," says Long. He adds: "Some of the plants were too big and we weren't getting much light in the classroom. The garden is looked after under contract and, in the long term, we will save money - it's designed for low maintenance."