TAKE A bleak hillside above a motorway junction; cover it in tower blocks and grey low-rise council housing; omit any shops or facilities that could bring a little redeeming life to the area; run a few major roads through it, and you have Royston Hill, north Glasgow.

Against this backdrop you will find Millburn community centre, a tatty Portakabin in the playground of a closed-down school, and it looks almost inviting. Inside, over tea and cakes, a group of single mothers are deep in discussion with Dr Catherine McCall, a philosophy lecturer from Glasgow University, about how their children are responding to her three- month philosophy course.

Julie's five-year-old, Paul, is asking more questions and drawing conclusions from what he sees and hears, but Julie, pregnant with her second child, finds some of his ideas disconcerting. Last week he watched a programme about how tadpoles are the 'babies' that grow into frogs, and came to the conclusion that his mother was going to have a frog. 'He's got a wild imagination,' she says.

But Dr McCall, 39, is delighted. 'It's good thinking, it's just his information that's not accurate,' she says. 'If the children say something that sounds incredible, let them follow through their reasoning before you correct them.'

It is the last session of 'Empowerment though Philosophical Dialogue', a training course for single parents and their children in the Socratic method of pursuing truth through rational argument.

Most of the people - five single mothers, a single father, a single grandmother, children and grandchildren - came from Possilpark, a large area north-east of Royston Hill blighted by chronic unemployment, gang violence, drug dealing and petty crime.

All the parents are long-term unemployed; only one has any formal education beyond 16 and two claimed to be illiterate. All the mothers are regularly battered by their partners and several have been defying them by coming to the course. But attendance has been high throughout and most intend to carry on with philosophy; either continuing with the course in September - if it is repeated - or going to a mature entry course in philosophy at Glasgow Polytechnic.

The course was mounted by Glasgow North Ltd, set up by British Rail to regenerate eight deprived areas after it closed its locomotive plant in Springburn, north Glasgow. Funding has come from BP, the Glasgow Development Agency and Strathclyde Regional Council.

Philosophical dialogue is practical rather than scholarly philosophy - a collective inquiry after the truth. Dr McCall teaches the children and parents in separate groups, which both start with readings from a Janet-and-John-

style children's book that features two youngsters with an unusual knack for running into metaphysical conundrums.

She then asks them for their thoughts on the text and prods them into discussion. Her questions always move from the particular towards underlying abstract concepts. Topics include the believable and the true; space, ghosts and God; nature, character and the self. The parents debate whether a natural environment is always good for us; what the limits of knowledge are, and whether we can create the future.

The children recite parts of the body connected to each other, and become stuck over the head and the brain. The brain was inside the head, so was it connected? Then they discuss whether you can make machines think.

'At the beginning I found the children extremely reticent,' Dr McCall says. One is on the danger list for abuse and she believes several have been battered. But the parents are already reporting changes in them; they are more inquisitive, more talkative and less likely to take no for an answer. Teachers of two children have said they are making social and academic gains at school.

Like most of the parents, Tracey, 28, came along for her six- year-old's sake and 'for the company. He was getting a wee bit out of hand and I thought it would settle him down. I thought it would be boring, but after the first night I was surprised. I didn't think we'd come out with the things we did and it was nice to know other people's opinions and to be able to express how you felt about life.

'I feel more confident now. I want something better - a career of some kind, though I don't know what. But I'm not going to rush into anything. I used to jump into things, but this time I'm going to think about it first,' she said. Three of the single mothers now want to go to college and Robert, a single father, has begun reading books.

The philosophy course is part of a wider move by urban agencies in Glasgow towards tackling chronic unemployment through long-term educational initiatives targeted at young children and parents. With unemployment stuck at more than 35 per cent in some areas and afflicting whole families, training programmes have had little effect.

'It's coming through loud and clear from people here that they do not see any future for themselves, but they do want something better for their children,' says Una Miller, Glasgow North's human resources officer.

In America, philosophy for children is taught in 5,000 schools. Tests on 2,000 children taking part showed dramatic gains in English and maths scores - of 60 and 30 per cent respectively - and in reasoning skills. Dr McCall spent five years teaching on the programme and her own research showed young children could perform a range of formal operations that child development textbooks said they were incapable of.

Since returning to Glasgow, she has piloted classes with seven- and eight-year-olds in Scottish primary schools and set up an M Phil in Philosophical Dialogue for teachers and other professionals.

'In the European tradition, philosophy is less alienated from the general populace than in the Anglo-American tradition,' Dr McCall enthuses. 'In Holland a few philosophers have even set up privately, like psychotherapists, and you pay to go along to address your philosophical problems with them.'

Comments