Holiday reading attracts children back to the classroom: Sarah Strickland reports on a teaching project for disadvantaged pupils

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The Independent Online
IT IS the middle of the school holidays but Brownhill primary school in Leeds is open for business. About 30 seven- year-olds are busy reading and writing, while in another part of the school parents discuss their children's reading habits with a teacher.

The children - from Brownhill and two other local primary schools - come for two hours, one group in the morning, the other in the afternoon. They have four teachers between them, recruited from other schools, plus other helpers, including parents.

The summer reading scheme is a pilot project run by Leeds Education 2000, which is promoting education in deprived areas of the city. It lasts three weeks and is aimed mainly at children who need extra help - their schools were asked to suggest who would benefit most. One of the main aims is to encourage parental involvement in their children's reading.

Julie Chantrey, a teacher who also takes the parents' workshops, said that getting parents interested was one of the biggest problems. 'We're trying to break the assumption that teaching is just the teacher's job,' she said. 'Often the problem is finding the time and a quiet place to sit down and read with your child - we can provide that here. Parents do find coming back in to school intimidating and you have to be careful how you present information so they don't feel patronised.'

The five parents who came to the workshop last week seemed perfectly at ease and responded enthusiastically to the discussion about reading at home. 'I read to my daughter until she gets fed up,' one said. The teacher suggested that little and often was probably best - five minutes a day rather than half an hour a fortnight.

The discussion moved on to whether parents asked their children about the stories they were reading. 'If it's a book they have read a lot they just seem to go through it,' a parent said. 'You get bored with it and they get bored with it.' Another said: 'They often don't know what they've read about.' Ms Chantrey suggested asking about characters and talking about the pictures. All thought that the scheme and workshops, which run twice a week, are a good idea. 'It's giving you an insight into how teachers teach your child,' a parent said. 'We are more broadminded now - there isn't the division between school and home there used to be when I was a child.'

Sheila Boyes said her son Paul was very enthusiastic about summer school. 'I think it keeps them stimulated - they have seven weeks' holiday, which is a terribly long time . . . It's nice to talk about what they are actually doing. We are kept a bit in the dark usually.'

Judith Robinson, operations director of Leeds Education 2000, admitted that it was 'desperately hard' to get parents in for workshops. Most said that they did not have time or felt they did not need any instruction in being a parent. 'We have set up a creche to try to counter all possible excuses,' she said.

But the parents they most wanted to see did not come. The children did come, however, and were reluctant to leave. Being at school in their holidays was a pleasure, not a penance, because summer school was different, they all said. Asked what else she might be doing, Emma said: 'Being bored at home.' Gemma said: 'It's more fun than school. I get bored at home.' Carly said that it gave her parents some peace at home.

Jonathon Holden, one of the teachers, said the idea was that children learnt but that the process was a little more entertaining and fun than at school. Each week is based around a theme. As well as reading and writing, there are comprehension activities, games, painting, cooking, computers and outdoor trips, and they are given words to learn at home with their parents.

Maurice Scott, chairman of governors at Brownhill school, which had lent its premises free, hoped that the idea would take off. 'In certain parts of Leeds children will already be overseas on holiday, but in the areas that Education 2000 covers, very few can afford it,' he said. 'In a depressed area like this with a high level of unemployment, many parents have quite a lot of problems at home to think about. It's up to the community to help those children to learn about life and enjoyment.'

(Photograph omitted)