Education: Listen with mother while she learns: Diana Hinds reports on a scheme for young parents offering lessons in English, maths and basic child-rearing skills

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The Independent Online
Sue Bard, 26, lost the desire to learn at secondary school - repeated bullying had destroyed her confidence. Now the mother of Karl, four, and Kirsty, three, and recently separated from their father, she is trying hard to improve her skills. Since May she has been studying basic English and maths and 'family literacy' with the Great Yarmouth Young Women's Project.

'I wanted to better myself, for Karl and Kirsty as well, because my general English is not very good,' she says. 'I wanted to know they could come to me for help. I'm not too bad at reading to them, but as they get older I'm going to find it more difficult.'

Sue is one of 21 women, all with small children and all on income support, enrolled on the project's education courses. Funded mainly by the Girls Friendly Society, an Anglican organisation founded in the last century to help young women at risk, the Great Yarmouth project originated five years ago to help young mothers with social and housing problems. Classes in English and maths began in May 1992 with a grant from the Adult Literacy Basic Skills Unit (Albsu) and the family literacy programme, which helps parents to help their children learn, developed a year later.

'It was a response to the women improving their own skills, and realising that there was a benefit for their children,' says Chris Snudden, the project tutor. 'They found their attitudes to their children were changing, and they were feeling more confident. They identified for themselves what they wanted to do on this course.'

The course occupies a two- hour weekly slot, while the children are taken care of in the creche. It begins by getting the mothers to watch the way their children play, to listen to what they say and what they are interested in, and to try to look at them more objectively. 'We are trying to encourage them to be more involved with their children in a learning capacity, not just in functional ways,' says Ms Snudden.

The mothers look at ways of sharing a book with a child - 'many of them don't know how to go about it and so they tend to avoid it,' Ms Snudden says - make their own story tapes and books, and look at how children's early literacy skills develop. Visits from the local health visitor or headteacher give them the chance to find out what will be expected of their children at different stages and what will happen in school.

'I didn't even know how they teach children now,' says Debbie Bullent, 24, mother of seven-month-old Jade and studying GCSE English, basic maths and family literacy. 'I was worried about what to teach Jade and what not to - they don't teach you how to be a mother when you have a baby. I would never have thought of counting things out loud for her at this age - like coming down the stairs - but here they said, start as early as you can.'

Michelle Lowe, 26, a single mother who hopes to gain the qualifications to do a nursing course, says the course has shown her she doesn't need to spend vast amounts of money to keep her lively four- year-old, Jamie, entertained. 'He's quite happy with a supply of pens and paper. He's not so hyper now, so it's easier to occupy his mind.'

Michelle has made Jamie his own book, 'Jamie's First Day At School', to help to prepare him for starting school in March. Bev Lowe, 18, who is studying basic English to improve her spelling, has already made flash cards, with a picture for each letter, for her 17-month-old son, Jordan.

The course is proving so successful that the Great Yarmouth Project now hopes to provide something similar for fathers. Albsu, with government backing, has this autumn set up five family literacy pilot projects in England and Wales, to help parents and children to improve their reading together. The 12- week courses, in Norfolk, North Tyneside, Liverpool, Cardiff and Newham, east London, will provide six hours of tuition a week for the adults on their own, and two hours a week for parents and children (aged three to six) to work and read together.

The courses begin after Christmas, but meanwhile, recruiting the families will be a substantial task - unlike at the Great Yarmouth Project, which enjoyed the considerable advantage of having already gathered together women needing help before the family literacy programme began. Andrea Mearing, who is co-ordinating the Norfolk project, says that links with local schools will help with recruitment, as well as numerous coffee mornings and meetings designed to get parents interested.

'We don't want the chattering middle classes,' she adds. 'We have to take a fairly low-key approach, and keep giving parents the opportunity to think about coming on the courses without feeling threatened by them.'

(Photograph omitted)