Book, listen and learn

Parents anxious to give their children a leg up the educational ladder are switching from story books to learning books. Maureen O'Connor reports
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The Independent Online
It may be a bit soon to predict that the bedtime story is going out of fashion. But to judge by the children's shelves in bookshops and, increasingly, supermarkets, families are more interested these days in preparing their children for the Key Stage tests than introducing them to the delights of The Three Little Pigs and Spot the Dog.

Home-learning books are a buoyant area for a generally depressed books trade. Well stocked bookshops boast tightly packed ranks of the archetypal Ladybird Books, where Peter and Jane keep on looking and swinging, and the imprint has branched out into story books ancient and modern.

But most of the big publishers are in there with titles to stoke up parental paranoia: Test Papers from Nelson, Back to Basics from Letts, Home Learning from Hodder, with the endorsement of the National Association of Parent Teacher Associations, and Infant Maths from Heinemann, give a flavour of what is on offer for five-to-11-year-olds. In some bookshops, textbooks previously stocked for teachers are migrating to the children's departments to tempt parents to buy them as well.

There are even books offering parents who are not very sure of their own grasp of the finer points of grammar or arithmetic some help before they sit down to instruct the kids. Piccadilly Books bring out Maths for Parents - "for parents who can't do maths" - this year. It follows on from Reading, Grammar and Spelling for Parents which, according to an Independent reviewer, "offer refreshingly easy strategies for parents." There is clearly a hefty bandwagon rolling.

This is also a field where the traditional bookshops face strong competition from the supermarkets who now market best-sellers for adults and educational books and materials for children, including, in some cases, their own "learn-at-home" series. According to the trade magazine Children's Bookseller the supermarkets have not been slow to capitalise on the fact that their customers are concerned about cuts in school spending. Alongside the various schemes to help local schools with computers and other equipment, they are beginning to offer back-up on their shelves as well.

Traditional booksellers sometimes dismiss the supermarkets' incursion into their field as one which merely provides "shut up" books for tiresome kids. But Fiona Kennedy, product manager for Tesco, says her customers are increasingly concerned that standards are falling, and increasingly willing to spend money on books. Rather than fill the shelves with 101 Dalmatians, the kiddy equivalent of the latest Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele, she wants to include books offering some educational benefit. "'Fun to learn' is the way Tesco is heading with children's books," she says.

But how much fun? Some teachers tell a different story. They want parental support, storytelling and lots of encouragement at home, but increasingly say that they are seeing children pressured to achieve in ways which are destructive.

Audrey Palmer, who is deputy head of a primary school in an affluent area of south London that is served by several prestigious private schools, is concerned at the effect of parental ambitions on some of her children. Children move into the private sector, she says, at seven and at 11, and families feel that they must achieve better than Level 2 and Level 4 at those ages.

By the time they come to take the private school entrance tests they have moved on from home-learning books to private tutors. "If parents want a particular school or an assisted place, they push very hard. This year we have asked the Year 6 children not to come in talking about what they have been offered because the effect on those who have not made it is so damaging. I do believe that making a child feel a failure at 11 is disgraceful."

Ironically, when Audrey Palmer's school arranged a meeting with parents to look at some of the home-learning books on the market, they found that the most ambitious families were not interested. They had all employed tutors. And although this is an option open only to the seriously affluent or the seriously determined, Audrey Palmer thinks that it might be better than having parents picking up some of the books now available.

"Some of them are quite useful for teachers, but not for parents unless they really understand the context and how to put ideas across. At Level 4 and Level 5 you are talking about concepts in maths and science that not long ago would not have been touched until GCSE. Learning at home at this level can be seriously confusing for children."

Barbara Jones, the head of a rural primary in Oxfordshire which was one of those deemed excellent last year by Ofsted, is also concerned about excessive pressure on children. "I am being asked to tutor children who are doing extremely well in school just to make sure they get a particular SAT grade or to make sure that they can cope with secondary school. I even get asked to predict how an 11-year-old will get on at GCSE.

"I think some middle-class parents are actually panicking, and there is no need for it. And of course these are the parents queuing up to buy books for use at home, some of which are quite simply no good. They are simplistic, often ambiguous, and look as though they have been compiled by people who do not understand how children learn. At the other extreme are the parents who won't be able to afford or understand the books, so the gap between families is likely to get wider."

In spite of misgivings, there are parents who make use of some of the titles on the market with a light touch. Rosie Nevies is a London mother of six whose children are in Jewish schools, which make heavy demands on pupils in English and in Hebrew. She is looking for materials which will complement, not compete with, what the school is doing, she says, and she thinks that a lot of the titles on the market were very dry and old-fashioned. "I fell asleep over some of the early-reading books," she says. "You have to be very selective. You are walking a tight-rope if you want to help but don't want to overload them."

And there are parents who find some of the better-designed books very useful. Joan Hawksby's daughter has learning difficulties, and had tried various home-learning books over the years, only to reject them as boring. "If I can find something that will interest her for half-an-hour then that is really good. I do think parents should help at home, especially if a child is in difficulties, but the books have to be well produced and cheap to buy. They are the ones which are not so easy to find"n