Birchensale Middle School’s Family Learning programme targets the parents of low-ability children, offering them the chance to improve key skills and participate more fully in their children’s learning. Carrie Saint Freedman visited the school to find out more

About the local area
The majority of Birchensale Middle School’s 392 pupils come from the Batchley estate in Redditch, Worcestershire – an area of multiple deprivation, characterised by long-term unemployment. Over half of Batchley’s working-age population has no qualifications and there are high rates of lone parenting. Health is generally poor, while crime is high, with significant orders from both the youth offending team and probation service. There is a higher than average number of children with SEN, around a fifth of children have English as a second language and some 25% are eligible for free school meals. These factors all contribute to Batchley’s geodemographic factor of 76, which makes it the second most deprived area in Worcestershire.

Tom Fitzpatrick, Year 8 teacher and coordinator of the school’s Family Literacy programme, is under no illusions about the type of lives that some of his pupils and their parents lead: ‘Many children enter the school with little understanding of how to work and learn in school and even less incentive to do so from home. They are sometimes disturbed by the chaos and disruptive nature of their home life and at times community conflicts can spill over into school.’

Birchensale Middle School is committed to developing close links with the families of its pupils via its Family Learning programme, designed to help parents of disadvantaged pupils improve their own key skills and take a more active role in their children’s learning. Generating take-up for these opportunities (the optimum roll is about 10 students per class) is never a straightforward task. Explains family literacy coordinator Tom Fitzpatrick: ‘We target the families of low-ability children who are two to three years behind their target attainment levels with a combination of fliers (distributed via the pupils’ school diaries); direct approaches (by phone, at the school gates or at other school events); and by inviting prospective students to a coffee morning.

The most common barriers to participation have been found to be around parents’ lack of self-confidence, particularly at transition stages when their children move into middle school; negative feelings around parents’ own school experiences; and feelings of inadequacy around curriculum content and the management structure.

Family learning: a barrier-breaking exercise
Encouraging parents to come into school is intended to help de-mystify the learning process, so that they begin to understand what their children are doing and why, in a setting that is far less formal and constraining than, for example, a parents’ evening. One of the welcome byproducts of parents and teaching staff working alongside each other to help their children is that this also helps ‘humanise’ the teachers. This is a real barrier-breaking exercise on many levels and helps to make the school environment a more accessible and friendly place.

Family Learning at Birchensale is funded by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) via Worcestershire local authority’s Family Learning programme and is a 15-week course taking place once a week between 9am and 12pm. Each session is divided into three parts:

  • Hour 1 focuses on literacy activities for parents.
  • Hour 2 is devoted to preparing parents for the activity to take place with their children.
  • Hour 3 focuses on the week’s curriculum-related exercise. This could be learning a poem to be recited in front of the class or basic literacy, eg using speech marks, writing in sentences and remembering capital letters and full stops.

Parents are often amazed by what their children are able to do with the right support. Says Tom: ‘Sometimes parents can be quite negative about their children – particularly if they have a “label” like dyslexia. It’s all about what they can’t do, rather than what they can and are achieving. The course is an opportunity to discover more about their child and what he/she is capable of.’

Outstanding results
A trip to a local bookstore (with a £20 voucher to spend) is included within the course, as well as a tour of Redditch Library. For the majority these are new experiences which sometimes yield unprecedented results, and it is not unusual for children to achieve significant gains in their reading ages following completion of the course. One parent in the current cohort had never read a book before and is now a reading convert, enjoying ‘me’ time with a book before bed for the first time in her life; and one of the children was so entranced by the library tour that she is now an almost weekly visitor.

The parents involved are unequivocal in their praise for the course. In a recent survey of parents’ views, they emphasised their desire to learn more about how things are taught in school and to be better placed to help their children with language and literacy as well as building their confidence.

A tangible step change
Although the primary focus of Family Learning at Birchensale is the children, both in terms of supporting their learning and helping its progression, one cannot ignore the obvious benefits for the adults themselves. Adds Margaret Griffiths, Skills for Life programme manager for NEW College, Birchensale and Redditch:

‘There’s a very tangible step change during the course amongst the adult learners as their self-esteem and self-confidence grows. By the end of the 15 weeks and having gained a national literacy qualification, they are wondering what they are going to do next, and for many of them “next” is a new phenomenon. I have seen many students go onto further education, for which we are a crucial first step.’

The 10-week ‘Family Friendly Finance’ course is another opportunity for parents to become active within school while learning how to manage money and family budgeting. Activities range from putting together a cookbook of economic recipes to which everyone contributes to planning (and executing) a shopping trip to a local supermarket. The programme also includes a visit from HSBC (which also runs Birchensale’s in-school banking facility) and a look at fun days out for free during the school holidays.

Course coordinator and head of Year 8 Alistair Sullivan emphasises the potential this course content offers: ‘While the basic maths content is highly relevant for both parents and children, we are also encouraging families to enjoy quality time together whether they are cooking, shopping or having a day out, without spending the money that many just don’t have.’

Another addition to Family Learning is the ICTogether programme in which children and their parents are taught computer skills together. With children using the school’s learning platform at home, parents are picking up skills to help ensure they are not excluded from the digital revolution.

As Jill Allbut, Worcestershire’s family learning manager, says: ‘The biggest single factor affecting children’s progress in the classroom is parental engagement in their learning. If parents are involved and interested, they are able to provide much better support for their learning at home.’

Clearly, this strategy is paying off at Birchensale. The number of full school detentions has fallen by 62% in four years – from 443 in 2004-05 to 167 in 2008-09. Over the same period, fixed-term exclusions have fallen by 69% from 52 to 16 and the school’s persistent absence rate of less than 3% falls well below the current government target of 7%.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic reduction in detentions given for major incidents such as violence, fighting and vandalism, as pupils understand the consequences of their actions and receive support to help alleviate such behaviour.

Parents and children benefit
Headteacher Hilary Dowding admits to being somewhat of an extended schools sceptic when she first took up her post some two years ago: ‘I certainly wasn’t a total advocate, but what I’ve witnessed here has totally changed my mind. I’ve seen parents and children benefit from involvement in our Family Learning programme both individually and in their relationships with each other.’

Hilary describes pupils who have become markedly more communicative and able to make eye contact with teachers for the first time as a result; children whose demeanour and attention to appearance has noticeably improved as their parents become more engaged with the school; and a considerable reduction in conflict at home when parents acquire real understanding and appreciation of what goes on in school. Hilary’s enthusiasm for the extended services programme is manifest and she is already planning a range of new activities:

‘My plans for the future include both formal and informal learning opportunities. We will be setting up a parents’ forum to discuss new initiatives as they arise and the work we are doing with their children to develop them into well-rounded learners for the 21st century. On a more informal level, new activities will follow a planned parents’ skills audit. The information we gather will help us to facilitate ‘skill share mornings’, which might range from nail art to gardening and flower arranging to Mah Jong – who knows what talents our parents may have!’

Case study: Joseph
Joseph came to Birchensale having previously been part of a nurture group at first school. In foster care since 2004, Joseph is looked after by his maternal great aunt and uncle. In care due to extreme neglect and emotional abuse, Joseph was described as ‘globally delayed’ at first school, and continues to struggle with reading and spelling. Joseph is also School Action Plus for learning and has moderate learning difficulties.

Joseph’s form teacher described him as ‘unsettled’ when he first came to Birchensale, but he has since settled extremely well and has made many friends. Part of Birchensale’s strategy to create a positive relationship with Joseph’s foster parents included an invitation to his foster mother and foster grandmother to attend the Family Literacy and subsequently Family Friendly Finance programmes.

When Joseph arrived in September his reading age was six years six months and his spelling age was seven years three months. He was working at Level 1 for English. Other interventions to support Joseph’s progress both emotionally and academically included extra reading support, provided by the ISL (Integrated Service for Looked-After Children) as well as the school, and the procurement of special learning software for home use.

Joseph’s confidence in his learning has improved dramatically. By March last year, Joseph’s reading age had risen by one year five months to seven years 11 months, and his reading level is 3c and overall English level 2b.

Joseph has been encouraged to take part in extra-curricular activities, and has since participated in football and karate club. He is also part of a targeted group run by the learning mentor for looked-after pupils, where he is given an opportunity to discuss home issues in a supportive environment and to forge relationships with children in similar situations, while raising confidence and self-esteem through targeted activities and protective behaviours.