Valerie Follet, a retired bank cashier, regularly looked after her granddaughter Maddie before she started school. "I did what I did with my children, and what my mother and grandmother had done with me. If we went out anywhere, I'd point things out. If we went to the shops, I'd talk about money. Anything you can count, we'd count. If we were picking up acorns in the park, then we'd count the acorns. To me it wasn't education but just what you did."
Today the bond continues, as Follett takes Maddie to and from school. "At the moment she's very into making cards, so when she comes home after school, we're doing that. She's well up academically, and she reads a lot, but she's like me in that. My relaxation is reading a book."
Grandparents are a huge, untapped resource when it comes to supporting children in school. In the past two generations, the proportion of children cared for by grandparents has leapt from 32 to 82 per cent and more than a third of the UK's 13 million grandparents spend the equivalent of three days a week caring for their grandchildren.
Probably no one knows this better than Lyn Downes, headteacher of Parsonage Wood Nursery and Infant School, in Farnborough, Hampshire, where Maddie goes. For a decade she has been developing links with her pupils' grandparents and for the past six years the school has held an annual grandparents' day, which has proved so popular that some grandparents now plan visits from America and Australia to coincide with this. Teachers at the school also tap into grandparents' knowledge. In one project grandparents sent a letter to their grandchildren describing how they used to travel to school.
"Care of children is very often now shared between parents and grandparents," she says. "And so many want to help but feel they don't know how, so we say 'Come in and see how we teach'."
Now the Basic Skills Agency is trying to highlight and develop the important role of grandparents in education. Last autumn it embarked on its Learning With Grandparents Campaign, prompted by research from Goldsmiths College which showed that, although grandparents did a huge amount to introduce their grandchildren to literacy and numeracy, this input went largely unrecognised. "Grandparents are an important, but as yet unacknowledged, part of bringing up children," says Jenny Colbey, senior assistant director at the agency, in charge of the campaign.
The campaign has produced a good practice guide, looked at schools that have experience of working with grandparents, and developed resources and materials for grandparents. These include a jargon-busting guide to primary schools, explaining SATs and key stages, and a pack of ideas to help grandparents and grandchildren communicate better.
"We've also given grandparents hints on things they can do when they are apart from their grandchildren, such as sending texts, e-mails or postcards. And we've put together ideas about what they can do to help with literacy and numeracy when they're at the shops, or at the park," says Colbey. All the campaign's materials, she says, are aimed at the 20 per cent of people who struggle with basic skills.
The Agency has also commissioned a project piloting learning activities which grandparents can do with their grandchildren, using diverse groups of grandparents in London, Doncaster and Portsmouth. One group came from an Afro-Caribbean church, another was centred on a primary school. "What we found is that grandparents do an awful lot in terms of talking about family history and culture," says Salman Al-Azami, the project's officer. "They are not aware themselves they do so much. Grandparents from ethnic backgrounds tend to talk more about family history than white parents, but all groups tend to talk a lot about religion and to say that the Bible or the Koran is a good source of learning."
The project, run jointly by Goldsmiths College, the Grandparents Association and Grandparents Plus, is currently preparing a report for policy makers.
The BSA's campaign is funded until next spring, but Colbey hopes it will continue. "No one has worked in this field before. It's wide open." And the great thing about grandparents, says Downes, is that they appreciate their grandchildren for what they are. "They've lost that ambition that you have for your child when you are a parent."
Follett agrees: "You're more relaxed, you're more patient and you've got more time for them."