Sing a song of citizenship

Is one year old too young to get started on your education? Maureen O'Connor visits `Peep'
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Amy is two and very wary, clinging to her mum for reassurance. Her baby sister, Katy, is much more outgoing and alert to everything the other children are doing, clearly enjoying the fun. Anoushka's mum gets a round of applause for getting to the meeting at all. She confesses that she gave birth to another baby just two days earlier. They are surrounded by tiny children, many still in nappies, fascinated by bright pictures in a book.

What brings a diverse group of mothers and very young children to an Oxford primary school for an hour a week is Peep - the Peers Early Education Partnership. Peers School is the comprehensive which serves the council estates of south Oxford, a city which, contrary to its dreamy image, has high levels of poverty, deprivation and crime, particularly on its outer estates.

Peep was born from the conviction amongst Peers staff and governors that early intervention is the key to educational performance at secondary level.Michael O'Regan, a businessman and Peers governor, launched an appeal last year to raise pounds 1m for work with the under-fives in the school's catchment area - roughly 300 children in each year group. With half of that money now found, Peep is off the ground and expanding fast.

Peep aims to catch children very young indeed. At present health visitors, who visit the homes of every newborn baby regularly, are informing new mothers of what it offers. Rosie Roberts, who is co-director of the project with Bill Laar, an independent education adviser, hopes that she may soon be able to contact parents while the mother is still in the local maternity ward where most Oxford babies are born. "We don't want to pressure them," she says. "But the sooner we can let them know that there is help available with their children's learning as well as their physical health, the better."

Peep works from the premise that children's first teachers are at home, and that parents will welcome help and encouragement. "I have never yet met a parent who is not interested in their child's education," she says firmly.

Peep is unusual in that it has deliberately launched sessions for the very youngest children in schools. And if anyone doubted the value of getting mothers and babies together for an hour's education, they would need only to see the fascination of one- and two-year-olds at the Rose Hill First School session in order to be convinced. These tiny children, some still only crawling, and their mothers, are having a great time on a rich mixture of stories, rhymes, songs and games.

For a very reserved child such as Amy who, her mother says, was very frightened of strangers, the group has been a lifeline. She is getting used to other children and adults long before she needs to go to nursery class. And for her mother, who confesses that she is not confident about anything academic, there is the extra benefit of being able to talk about children's learning in a comfortable group where she has made friends.

Later the same day, Peep moves to Pegasus First School which serves part of the huge Blackbird Leys estate. There relatives of the four-year-olds gather - a father and a couple of grandmothers, as well as mothers.

Central to the whole scheme are books, which can be bought or borrowed, toy-bags which can be taken home, and quite specific advice on play and activities which will help children towards literacy and numeracy. There are lots of games and songs and stories, in which the adults, throwing off their inhibitions, gamely join.

Parents keep a bright yellow loose-leaf book to record their children's progress, based on the child health records which the NHS has used for years, and with which parents are familiar. Every session includes an opportunity for parents to talk to the organisers and each other about what their children have been doing, and how play and activities at home contribute to their progress. This is backed up by a ready supply of leaflets and advice.

Peep hopes to raise the funding to run for five years, and to take in all the area's children from birth to seven years of age. Eventually, Rosie Roberts says, they hope that the nursery classes and play groups, and the first schools, will be able to take over this sort of support work with parents themselves. The immediate aim is to extend the scheme to cover the whole target population, while fending off people from elsewhere in the city who would like to join in.

The head of Peers School, Bernard Clarke, is quite convinced that his school will gain in the end. As Peep's literature puts it: it is never too soon to start a child's educationn