An innovative training scheme is making the most of school lunchtimes both for children and the assistants who supervise them. Caroline Swinburne reports
Michael Dermott, who first came to Knowsley Central Primary Support Centre as a five-year-old back in 1995, speaks as a veteran. 'When I started here lunchtimes were really boring. Everyone just used to run around, and there was lots of fighting and bullying. And there was nothing in the playground - no games or toys or anything.'
Now lunchtimes at this Merseyside primary school have been transformed through a training programme for the lunchtime assistants. As elsewhere, many of the assistants are mothers or grandmothers keen to earn some extra money but who have found the intricate politics of the playground quite a challenge.
'When they start the job most have little or no understanding of what they're taking on,' says Sue Ockleston, director of the charity Shared Learning in Action, which is now pioneering a training scheme for lunchtime assistants.
'This is a deprived area and with the children hanging around bored, fighting and bullying soon become major problems. Most lunchtime assistants soon start to see it as a big achievement just to keep some semblance of order. Until we started work here, ideas such as helping children play, talking with them and providing a friendly ear for their problems were virtually unheard of.'
From her work running drug education projects in Merseyside schools, Sue realised lunchtimes were a missed opportunity to give children a positive experience. To research the situation further she asked children to draw and write about 'the best and worst things that happen at lunchtime'.
The best included 'food' and 'freedom to run around and be noisy', while the worst were 'fighting/seeing others fight', 'getting accidentally hurt', and 'being shouted at or punished'.
Among the children's suggestions for lunchtimes were helping look after younger pupils, and being especially friendly to new children. They also had ideas about games they would like to play, and toys and equipment they wanted for the playground.
Sue raised funding for the first lunchtime assistants' training course. The 52 recruits attended five two-hour sessions. The first part of the course was theoretical, looking at issues such as child protection, equality, raising children's self-esteem and dealing with conflict. In the second, practical part, assistants were supervised and helped as they worked in the playground.
Knowsley lunchtime assistant Erica Walsh says, 'The training helped me to stand back from situations and stay calm, and to see how you can turn a situation round and make it positive rather than negative.'
Her colleague Ken Lewis, the only man to enrol on the course, says, 'I learned a lot about how to empathise with the children. We learned about communication skills, like how to approach a child who's upset. We talked about children's moods, what might be the reasons for it, and how to bring the child out of it.
We also learned about dealing with children in groups, and good games to play with lots of children. We were also made to take the initiative in starting things.'
Now at lunchtimes the Knowsley playground is full of colourful toys and the ground is covered in chalk markings for games. Assistants also organise a variety of voluntary clubs for children, including dance and keep fit.
'The whole atmosphere's changed,' says Erica. 'We see the job as being all about getting involved, and letting the children see that you're enjoying yourself as much as they are. We go out and play with the balls, hula-hoops or hopscotch. It's much more fun for the children. And the whole playground is much calmer. I also think that if children have problems they tend to come to me. They see me on the yard every day, so they're used to talking to me.'
The trainees had the option of submitting written or tape recorded work, to gain a nationally recognised qualification accredited by Merseyside Open College. Many who gained the certificate now have plans to expand their study.
Some have enrolled to train as classroom assistants.'It's definitely a useful qualification to have if you want to apply for other jobs,' says Erica. 'And the teachers now regard us as the experts when it comes to outdoor activities.'