Education Quandary

'We're a small nursery school and increasingly feel we must work more closely with parents to develop children's language and social skills. But we have no time, money or experience. What can we do?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's Advice

First of all, pat yourselves on the back for being spot-on in wanting to build these links - all the available research shows that if parents can be encouraged to play, talk and generally interact more with their children, the effect is powerful and stays with them through school and beyond.

Everyone involved with children's development understands this now. For example, working in partnership with parents is a fundamental thread in the Government's multi-stranded Sure Start scheme, which aims to give children in poorer areas a better start in life (and for which, incidentally, Mr Blair and his cabinet deserve far more praise that they have got so far - there are never political brownie points in pre-schooling, so all credit to any government which gets down to serious work in this area).

Second, try and find a way of allowing one of you some time to look into possible solutions. The problem will not be finding ideas or resources, it will be sorting through them to find those that are relevant for you. Contact your local education authority adviser to ask about training schemes and courses. And contact other nurseries to see if they would like to share costs. With half a million children in day-care, and the number of new nurseries up by a third in the last three years, there are a lot of you out there who will be facing up to the same challenges.

To see what resources are available nationally, contact the parent information and advice charity, Parentline Plus (www.parentlineplus.org.uk), or the National Day Nurseries Association (www.ndna.org.uk). The Pre-School Learning Alliance (www.pre-school.org.uk) has a network of regional and local development workers it could help you tap into. And to be really inspired, look at some of the work done in projects such as the Pen Green Centre for under-fives and their families in Corby, or the Peers Early Education Partnership in Oxfordshire.

In all of this you will, of course, need to avoid any temptation to either preach or parent bash. Most parents want to do the best for their children and are eager to know how they can help out, provided ideas can be presented to them in an encouraging way.

Readers' Advice

The key thing is to find appealing ways to lure parents into school, perhaps by offering drama or music sessions for both parent and child - then you can model active play so that parents know how to do it. "Tot Stars" is the name for a song and rhyme group run by Sure Start Cauldwell in Bedfordshire. Other Sure Starts offer baby massage as an enticement, and then get parents singing and talking with their child. More initiatives are listed at www.talktoyourbaby.org.uk

Liz Attenborough, Talk To Your Baby manager, National Literacy Trust, London

The nursery school is right to identify language delay and poorly-developed social skills as a significant problem. This experience is mirrored across the country but they may well be underestimating their own skills and knowledge. After all, the staff will be fluent communicators and will therefore possess the skills they are anxious for the children to acquire. A training session from a local speech and language therapy service could help staff understand more about normal language development. They might then feel confident to run "Play and Talk" sessions for parents and children together.

Gila Falkus, Team leader for early years speech and language therapy at Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster Primary Care Trusts

When pupils turn up in primary school unable to use a knife and fork, talk fluently or manage the toilet, some teachers will assume that parents have been neglectful and that their children have suffered as a result. But it is now becoming clearer that many children who experience these sorts of problems are disabled in some way.

No one knows what causes these marginal autistic traits in such a large percentage of today's school-age population, but there is no doubt that lives are being destroyed by something that is happening before children even start school. Whatever it is, it is not related to their social or family backgrounds.

Jane Ellis, Manchester

Next quandary

'I am in Year 12 at school, taking four AS-levels. My parents want me to carry on with all four subjects next year at A2-level. They say that the university application process is becoming more competitive, and that these courses will give me an edge. None of my friends is planning to do four subjects, and my teachers say it's up to me. I'd rather do three. What should I do?'

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 23 February, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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