Never too old to learn

4th May 2012 at 01:00
The importance of early years education is recognised by all political parties, but parents are on a learning curve too

Parents at Castlemilk Family Learning Centre have been on a journey that, until recently, they could never have imagined. "I wouldn't leave the house," says Tracy Rennie. "The furthest I went was to the shops with my mum. Even when I first came to the centre I just dropped my boy off with my head down and went home."

It's hard to believe, as she and her friend Michelle McDonagh talk eloquently about the learning experiences they have been sharing with their children.

"The two of us went to a conference last week in Edinburgh, to talk about what we have been doing at the centre," Michelle says. "There were about a hundred people there. It was terrifying."

Maybe so, but the young women were outstanding, says the head of the centre, Patricia Madden. "People told us they were in tears. On the platform at Haymarket, folk were still saying how fantastic they had been. Even on the train going home, a woman stopped and said it had been wonderful."

Michelle adds: "Somebody came up and said `You've inspired me'. How good is that? We inspired them? I've never heard that in my life."

"We just stood up and talked," says Tracy. "I'm not even sure what we said. It worked because our hearts were in it."

The young mums stole the show, confirms Glasgow's director of education Maureen McKenna. "What a journey it's been for them, to be able to stand up in front of all those people and tell their story."

It's a story with its origins almost 15 years ago, explains Patricia. "A family learning centre is a kind of nursery, but it's more than that. We became one in 1998 and at first we had a social worker and a health visitor. Funding and the staff we got changed over the years, but the ethos stayed the same - to encourage learning in families by supporting parents as well as their children."

There had been other parents' groups at the Castlemilk centre, but a step change in activity came a couple of years ago, she says. "Glasgow Life put on a family learning week. Then their tutors started working with parents on literacy and numeracy.

"As part of that, the mums went out to Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and put together a book of words and pictures about their experiences."

Increased confidence raised aspirations, so as children moved on to primary school some of the mums took educational paths that had once been inconceivable.

"One went to Glasgow School of Art, another to Langside College to do interior design, another to the Met College to study jewellery making," says Patricia.

So far, Tracy and Michelle hadn't felt able to play an active part. But the practical nature of a Triple P course - "Positive Parenting Program" - captured their interest and the involvement of other mums, says Patricia. "We talked about what to do next. We decided to apply to Families in Partnership, a Glasgow City project that got parents and children into a whole range of activities, out and about."

This was when things started to get stressful, says Tracy. "We were kinda shy and didn't have much confidence. Our first outing was nerve-racking. We didn't know each other and we had to go on the Glasgow open-top tour bus. We were up top and it was raining and windy.

"But it was great. We saw things we'd never seen before. The kids were going, `Look, look, Mum!' at the museum and the science centre and the BBC. That was my boy's favourite."

Other days followed - outings to places the mums had seen on their first tour of a city they had lived in all their lives. "We had no idea there was so much out there," says Michelle. "The kids were so excited at seeing all these things - even simple things, like going over the river on the bridges. They still talk about it."

Discussions at the centre, about what was working and what wasn't, began to pull the group together. The People's Palace proved popular with the children - especially Billy Connolly's big banana feet - but lunch was "awful". "We decided in future we would come in early with the kids and make packed lunches," says Michelle.

That was when the bonding began, says Tracy. "You were asking folk what they liked on their sandwiches, then making them for them. We were opening up, communicating for the first time."

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which had impressed from the tour bus, was the first destination for an in-depth day out. "Our boys liked the dinosaurs," says Tracy. "They had learned about them in the nursery. They loved telling us all the things they knew. They were teaching us."

She laughs. "Then they asked if we were there at the same time as the dinosaurs."

The day passed quickly, partly because of the novelty of the place and its activities, but also because of the mums, says Michelle. "We made it fun for the weans. We'd go, `Come on and look at this!' or `Let's see if you can find that'."

In the weeks that followed, the families visited the People's Palace, the Scotland Street Museum, the Burrell Collection and Calderglen Country Park.

"When you watch the videos we made, the learning was unbelievable," says Patricia. "We didn't realise how much at the time.

"At Summerlee Heritage Park, for example, we went on the tram and down a mine. We talked about how people lived then, with beds that pulled out like a chest of drawers, and outside toilets."

It was at Summerlee that the mums' ability to overcome their fears, and do things they had never dreamt possible, really came home to them, says Michelle. "My dad was a miner and I have always wanted to know what it was like for him. We got the chance to go down the mine. I was terrified. But I did it.

"Our kids see us out there, learning things, and it encourages them. It helps them. We did it all for them."

Feelings and attitudes are easily passed from parents to children, Tracy agrees. "If you are scared of something, you can put that fear on to your kids. It's like public speaking. The kids have to do that at school assemblies. So they'll now go, `My mum's done that so I can, too.'

"Before, I was always `I cannae do that'. But since we went for this group, we have changed."

Tracy and Michelle have now both applied to study childcare at Langside College. "If we keep working - and working together - our children are going to be better people with better jobs," says Michelle. "That's what it's all about."


On the same day as Tracy Rennie and Michelle McDonagh spoke at the conference, two of their colleagues were attending Aye Write, the Glasgow book festival, to read aloud some of the poetry they and their colleagues had composed during creative writing classes at the Castlemilk centre.

"I never thought I could go to something like that," says Angela McDonagh (pictured, left). "I had panic attacks. I didn't go out of the house for years."

"I was nervous, but I wanted to do it," says Lynda Christie (pictured, right). "I used to be really bad with travel. I was scared to talk to people."

Once they had been taught how to start, the parents found poetry surprisingly easy to write, they say. "First you would have to pick a colour, say red," says Lynda. "Then you would write what you liked about that colour. Or we would write a poem about being a mum."

Literacy and numeracy classes were also provided. "Some parents struggled with the evaluations on the days out," says the head of the centre, Patricia Madden. "So the girls who'd been on the literacy classes helped them out."

The most memorable part for Angela was the bus tour of the city she had lived in so long, but never really knew, she says. "It was my first time on an open-top bus. Because I was so nervous, I wouldn't let my son do things before. I give him more freedom now."

Lynda's fears once held her children back, too, she says. "But now they see me willing to have a go and it gives them confidence. My son wants to be a vet."

Family learning is all about timing, says Patricia. "There is so much going on in some of these parents' lives. You have to know when to push a little and when to step back.

"There is a time for learning."


In future, all Glasgow City nurseries will provide an element of family learning and support, as happens already at Castlemilk and a dozen other Family Learning Centres around Glasgow, says director of education Maureen McKenna.

"Early years makes such a difference to families. Parents of little children like coming to nurseries. They feel confident and trusted. So there are great opportunities there for us to provide an extra layer of support and learning."

Centres such as Castlemilk demonstrate the twin benefits of family learning, she says. "Parents start to recognise that they have skills, and they then start looking at employment opportunities. But they also see the value of education for their children."

The response from the heads of Glasgow nurseries - more than 90 of them - consulted on how many should promote family learning was very encouraging, she says. "All of them, was what they told me - in varying degrees, matched to the needs of their community.

"There's a lot going on already, right across the city. Many nurseries already run some kind of parent partnership project. What we plan to do now is take it to the next level, address any gaps and build on our strengths."

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