Unheard voice of the experienced

11th April 1997 at 01:00
You didn't have electric light when you were young, did you Mummy?" asked my seven-year-old, as she filled out the columns in her jotter: "My parents' childhood" and "My grandparents' childhood". Pencil poised, she continued: "Did Granny have a horse and no toilet?"

Grim enough, I thought - being twice as old as most of her friends' parents - without this extra humiliation, but the latest school project on vacuum cleaners and gramophones, washboards and videos brought home how hard it is for younger children to grasp concepts of time and change, especially the growing number who no longer have grandparents around. I also noticed how absorbed children are by such projects. Rowan talked for weeks about exploring a recreation of 1920s classrooms, especially their tawses, which held an alarming fascination.

That in turn made me reflect on how rarely schools use the human resources surrounding them. Imaginative link-ups with older people are still innovative exceptions rather than the norm. Yet my own part of Edinburgh is famed as a historic community. Old fisherfolk and miners live no more than a few miles away. Many people in the rural area where I grew up, the richest source of folksong in the UK, can give living testimony to fascinating changes in rural life.

But various "adopt a granny" schemes are, we're told, "a fresh idea" in the UK, in contrast to US projects. And they have worrying aspects too. New Labour wants to see a network of 60-pluses befriending vulnerable families, working with them at home or in family centres to advise parents and befriend children. The charitry Age Concern's pilot projects in England match older volunteers with children considered vulnerable by their schools or social workers.

These have brought clear benefits to volunteers and children alike. But why on earth should the scheme be confined to "vulnerable" children? As for shadow education secretary David Blunkett's vision, it could rapidly descend into patronisation of the poor, who need to learn proper parenting skills. Now where have we heard that before? Not from socialists. But heaven forfend that under New Labour children might actually learn about brutal social injustice from former workers in Dundee's jute mills, from the 1930s unemployed or from one-time domestic servants in rural Aberdeenshire.

Parenting is the most difficult skill to transpose - the biggest source of tension between successive adult generations. Strictness, smacking, over-indulgence, sweet- giving - the areas of conflict are endless.

Parenting has changed and, many would argue, rightly so. Why not concentrate on harnessing instead the skills, experience, observations, memories and insights of older people as an active part of community life for today's children? Negative perceptions work both ways. In Britain older people are made to feel redundant and de-skilled, fit only for meals-on-wheels or for sitting around in old folks' clubs. Likewise, children see them tottering down the road or slumping in homes for the elderly.

I want my daughter to talk to them, walk around the city with them, learn from them and respect them as interesting, absorbing people, whose contribution is an integral part of her education.

Why is this so difficult? Older people need first a welcoming invitation, not least because so many recall schools as harsh, devaluing and unwelcoming places.

Nor must older people be used as a source of free labour, supplanting teachers' proper role. But surely older people's own organisations could be actively involved in designing project work. They have so much to teach of social, industrial, agricultural and fashion history, war and communal conflict, music-making, environmental studies, technology, public health, local geography projects, journalism and interview projects, cookery and breadmaking, speech and dialect, and much more besides.

Older people live just around the corner from every primary and secondary school. Their wisdom is needed not just by the vulnerable and love-deprived, but by the cocksure and confident -those whose parents have already given them the blinkered message that the latest computer system offers an infallible route to knowledge. You teachers out there who have made the imaginative link - shout about what you've done; so we parents can press for the same mini-revolution in our own neighbourhoods.

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