At 8.30 on a freezing Dec-ember morning, home-school support worker Zarah Farah is in the playground of Malmesbury Infant and Junior Schools in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. While the head of the juniors, Mike Russell, meets and greets in a cheery, public way, she stands slightly to one side under the looming Victorian brickwork. One by one, parents peel off to whisper in her ear, or she touches their sleeves and confers with them.
One mother tells her that her two children weren't in school last week because her social security was cut off after someone said she had a man living with her. Until the benefit was reinstated, she didn't have the bus fare to school. A Bengali grandmother, with a scarf wrapped around her face, wants to talk about the family's worries about the youngest child's reading -and her own unbearable toothache. Another mother says that her child, fat and getting fatter, can no longer get into the school uniform trousers she recently bought her with a clothing grant. Can she take them back? A woman with five pale-faced children around her, presents Zarah Farah with a bottle of Ventolin syrup and asks her to make sure her daughter gets a dose at 12.25, to prevent another asthma attack.
The East London Schools Fund - a charity set up in 1989 by a former education welfare officer - works in 34 schools in the impoverished boroughs of Tower Hamlets, neighbouring Hackney and Southwark to keep children in school through family support. Its work is the subject of a recent report by the National Children's Bureau, which found that improving links between home and school can help prevent problems in children's lives (TES, October 25).
Zarah Farah has worked in the two Malmesbury schools, which share a site, since 1991. They serve an ethnically varied population with high unemployment, poor housing - all the difficuties of the inner city. Twelve different home languages are spoken in the children's families; more than 70 per cent are entitled to free school dinners.
A refugee from Somalia herself, Zarah has got to know families well and has gone through some of the travails some of them face. She lived with her three younger children for two years in a bed and breakfast hotel after arriving in Britain, a period in which she says she "forgot completely the pleasure and the blessing of having a home". Brought up speaking Somali, then educated in Italian, she had to learn English from scratch and worked as a volunteer interpreter in schools and hospitals before being taken on by the fund. "The parents accept me as someone they can talk to," she says, "and they will have a result, a friendly result, without anybody authoritarian coming into their life. You are reachable, not statutory."
Fund director Mary Walmsley says the role of the home school worker is to "work with the families in order that the children can have the fullest opportunity in school that they can". Available to parents, children and teachers, the worker may be checking up on absences, escorting a sick child home, listening to a parent's woes, or attending a child protection case conference. Although Zarah Farah began in the Malmesbury schools at a point when there were no education social workers in post, she now works alongside the local education authority service.
On this particular Tuesday, once the children have gone into class and the parents dispersed, she sets off on a home visit to a mother in a nearby tower block. The youngest son has had behavioural problems since his father left, taking two older brothers with him. He feels rejected, says Zarah, and has been off-school regularly and difficult when he has been present.
The child's 40-year-old mother, Maureen Grey (not her real name) answers the door, the flat in darkness behind her and a cat about her feet. She launches immediately into the story of the morning's events, and how her daughter is off school because she is ill. She says, without apparent irony, that she has felt great since taking "the Prozac".
But she lives on income support, on the fourth floor of a windy block, has no phone and is worried about all four of her children. She is clearly pleased to see Zarah, and begins a wide-ranging discussion of her difficulties, including the fact that she believes her ex-husband isn't feeding the two older boys adequately.
She doesn't see Zarah as the new face of the truant officer. "When Craig plays up I need someone to talk to," she says. "Zarah's known us for a while, so I can say what I think. She doesn't make you feel you're below and she's above you. It's a nice feeling, actually."
Mrs Grey recounts with seeming surprise her son's reaction now that she has, on Zarah's suggestion, begun praising him for what he does right; he has stopped asking to be taken into care, she says, and is seeing a child psychologist.
"I make a nuisance of myself with Zarah but she doesn't mind," she says. "I feel good because I'm not totally on my own." Zarah leaves after 15 minutes and after agreeing to ring the doctor when she gets back to school for a home visit for the daughter.
The next visit is to a Somali family. In a shabby front room, while the traffic roars unceasingly beyond the thin front wall, a young mother is spooning porridge into a baby in a bouncer. Her son has recently begun at Malmesbury Infants; the school is concerned that he may have a learning difficulty but has now established through Zarah that the problem is one of language; the parents speak only Somali at home and the boy started reception with no English at all. He is picking it up fast now, and the mother complains that he no longer wants to speak his mother tongue at home. She too treats Zarah like a friend.
Although she's clearly well-liked by parents, her job is not to be popular, Zarah says. Much of the support she offers families is aimed at improving children's attendance and timekeeping. "I can be supportive with a Mum, " she says. "But then I have to explain the reality. The child and his or her education come first and I explain that if they don't address it the problem will pass out of my hands, because that is the law of the land."
For some of the Mal-mesbury families, compulsory school attendance is a new concept. But the fund does not believe that home-school contracts are an effective means to bring disaffected families into a closer relationship with schools. "When we look into poor attendance, we find families need support in a variety of ways," says Mary Walmsley. "I think it is helpful for the school to lay down its expectations of the children, pre-admission. But binding contracts would just set up more barriers and ways of excluding some children. They would not help the families which find even getting to school difficult."
Mike Russell, head of the juniors for the past 11 years, says home-school support has been a "godsend. My workload is reduced by 20 to 30 per cent - and parents aren't getting a holding operation. I feel people's needs are being addressed."
The scheme, he says, is the "most positive move towards school improvement" he has seen in his 23 years teaching in the borough. The two schools each pay for two days per week of the four-day per week post, which is subsidised by the East London Schools Fund.
Despite budget cuts, only one school in the three boroughs has in the past two years given up its home-school support worker. "More and more," says Mary Walmsley, "schools are saying that unless they have support for their parents they can't function effectively."
Back in her office, Zarah Farah picks up a number of messages on the answerphone from teachers wanting her to follow up absences, and parents wanting to speak to her. The last message is from her solicitor and prompts cries of delight; she has, after 12 years, been accepted as a British citizen.
* East London Schools Fund, St Michaels Vicarage, St Leonards Road, London E14 6PW. Tel 0171 538 3479
* The report, Making Home-School Work: home-school work and the East London Schools Fund, by Mhemooda Malek is published by National Children's Bureau Enterprises Ltd, Pounds 8.50 plus Pounds 3 pp from Book Sales, NCB, 8 Wakley Street, London EC1V 7QE