Prime time with my other family

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Take a child from each year group and give them a task to do together. It's an idea that builds citizenship values and social skills. Eleanor Caldwell reports

Every other Friday afternoon is family time at Baljaffray Primary in Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire. It is not a time for mums and dads to visit though; it's a time when the children meet up with other members of their school "family".

Every child at the school is assigned to one of 41 families.

Each family has one pupil from every year group and every P7 pupil from the school's two classes is a family captain. P6 pupils act as vice captains.

The children are assigned to a new family every year and so get to know more and more of their schoolmates.

Depute headteacher Kenneth MacIver selects the family groupings. He avoids placing siblings together and keeps a watching brief on pupils'

relationships and behaviour patterns so that he can place them accordingly.

Margaret Milne, the headteacher, introduced the scheme to Baljaffray Primary after seeing it in action in Australian schools, where it was originally devised to encourage peer support, particularly in multicultural schools in New South Wales. She recognised its potential as an alternative approach to personal and social development.

The programme is very structured. Family time occurs for 45 minutes every fortnight on Friday afternoons. (On alternate Fridays, pupils have Golden Time or an awards assembly.) At 11.30am on family days, the captains have a meeting with family time organiser and P7 teacher Anne O'Neill to discuss the afternoon's activity. The themes are varied: honesty, playground trouble and friendship with people who have special needs are a few.

The structure of the afternoons is the same every time. Each captain leads their family through a warm-up session where pupils share the ups and downs of the week. Entries to the school's daily excellence book (a merit system awarded by teachers) and records of misdemeanours are collated. They are all aiming for maximum points and the accolade of Family of the Week. Once the routine business is over, the captains lead their family in the day's activity.

Today's theme is a follow-up to a previous session on trouble in the playground in which pupils considered the problems. Now they are charged with coming up with practical solutions. The captains adopt the role of chairperson, wearing their mark of authority, a baseball cap with the school badge. Family members write or draw their own solutions on a piece of paper.

There is a lot of co-operation between the younger and older children. "We have to help the wee P1s because they can't write yet," explains one P5 girl.

The consensus in more than one group is that the playground should be equipped with swings and roundabouts. While not discouraging family members to support the idea, the captains point out the possible disadvantages of playground equipment.

The role of the captains is an important one. A good vice captain "always listens to everyone and even keeps order when everyone speaks at the same time," explains one vice captain. He is looking forward to taking charge when his captain is absent: "But he never is."

In another group, a P4 boy tries to convince the family that the school should have a football pitch for lunchtime matches. He is loathe to accept the vice captain's suggestion that it could lead to injury or window breakages. The suggestion is noted nevertheless.

At the end of every month families complete an evaluation of their month's activities. This includes the captain's assessment of his or her family's behaviour and effort. Marks out of 10 are awarded for each.

Teachers take a back seat during the Friday family sessions and only intervene if asked by the captains or if there are obvious behaviour problems. It is, says Mrs O'Neill, a good opportunity for teachers to observe pupils in their own class interacting with a different group of children. It is also a time when teachers can make informal assessments of the pupils' speaking skills.

The family groupings have made a difference to school life, say the children. Pupils who would not normally meet now have friendships across the school.

The senior pupils have also acquired a sense of responsibility for their younger charges, says Mr MacIver.

The programme has been welcomed by parents, who see the advantage of pupils having friendships that can continue out of school.

Liz Galloway, the quality and development officer for Fife, is very positive about the scheme. "The children are developing a whole range of social skills and it's great that the parents are so supportive," she says.

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