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Where success is taken as read

Linda Blackburne revisits a school-based adult literacy project

When the Norfolk Family Literacy Project started two years ago, teachers were unsure how successful it would be.

But to their surprise, there were many families keen to improve their reading and writing, and, unlike traditional adult education, 98 per cent of the students completed the courses. Andrea Mearing, the county's adult basic education co-ordinator, describes the retention rate as "staggering".

Next month, the Basic Skills Agency, which initially funded the Norfolk project along with schemes in Liverpool, North Tyneside and Cardiff, will publish in-depth research into the effectiveness of family literacy in areas of multiple deprivation.

When parents have difficulties with reading and writing, there is a strong likelihood that their children will under-achieve at school. The report by the National Foundation for Educational Research will say whether the projects make a difference, and whether they prevent later failure in school.

But Annie Whiteman, Chris Snudden and Sian Welby, who run the family literacy project at Larkman first school in Norwich, are in no doubt about the effectiveness of the courses, and neither are their students.

The pioneering "Learning Together" sessions (which The TES reported in June, 1994) are still going strong. Then, as now, the students are upset when the 11Z2 day per week sessions end after three months.

Indeed, their only criticism of the course is that it is too short. But their teachers believe courses advertised for longer than 12 weeks may initially deter parents.

Mandy Gould, 26, a former factory worker and mother of Gemma, four, and, Hannah, two, said: "I got hooked from the minute I walked in the door. Everyone is so friendly. That's why it's a success. It's so relaxed and the staff are wonderful."

Everything is free, including the creche. Norfolk County Council took over the funding of the project when the Basic Skills Agency's money ran out last December, and the scheme also receives cash from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Rural Development Commission and the European Social Fund. The parents on the course, mainly mothers, devise and make children's games; learn how to write formal letters; take part in activities designed to improve literacy and communication skills; learn first aid; work on computers; and enter into projects linked to everyday living, such as diet and shopping.

Dawn Bell, 30, a hairdresser, is now planning to do GCSE English after completing a City and Guilds level 2 certificate in core skills at Larkman. "There is no pressure here," she said. "Here we have all got children. If we do the work we do it, if we don't we don't."

Dawn's four-year-old son, Thomas, has also made progress. Once he did not want to draw and paint but now, his teachers comment on his enthusiasm.

The lone male on the course joined after being accosted at the school gate. "I didn't have anything to do. I don't work. I'm on my own," said Eddie Reid, 30, father of Christopher, five.

Unemployment on the nearby council estate is high, so why don't more men attend? "It's perceived as coffee, and a sit-down and a chat about Emmerdale Farm and other women-related things," said Mr Reid, conceding the inaccuracy of the impression.

The Basic Skills Agency is attempting to attract more men to family literacy projects through a Saturday scheme at the Ford plant in Dagenham, Essex, where 99 per cent of the workforce is male.

At Larkman, the families determine course content, although the focus of the project is always literacy and communication skills.

Families are not referred or targeted by schools or the social services. Often the mothers appear to be articulate and socially confident, but lack confidence in reading and writing.

Sometimes it is a huge step for children to see their parents taking a deliberate, supportive role in literacy. Apart from the continuing demand for the courses, the other pleasant surprise for the programme co-ordinators has been the co-operation of the infant schools when the children were withdrawn for one-and-a-half days a week. They anticipated difficulties, but there have been none.

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