Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Kate Bellingham: My School Gate Story



When my eldest child started at Primary School, I was working part time and was happy to help out as part of the ‘Mums Army’.  The requests included the Christmas fete, helping on school outings and listening to readers.  I tried all of them, but was most comfortable sitting in the corner of the reception class with a small child next to me and sharing in the adventures of Biff, Chip and Kipper.  I felt that I was doing something useful, but was also getting a better understanding of my children’s education.

When my son moved up to Year 1, I did too.  At some stage, I must have offered to help with Maths.  I can’t remember exactly when, but I do remember I was not immediately welcomed with open arms.  Having since trained as a Maths teacher, I understand why – Maths is taught in a very different way to how it was in my school days, and you wouldn’t want an enthusiastic parent confusing things.  Also, I expect the teacher was concerned it would be more work for her to manage another classroom assistant, rather than just someone sitting in the corner plodding through the Oxford Reading Tree. Someone has since suggested that the reluctance could have been a lack of confidence from the teacher when faced with someone with an A level in Further Maths and a Masters in Electronics.  That might be true with some teachers, but I’m pretty sure it was not the case here.

So, I started helping out with Maths.  And I loved it! Other parents might prefer helping with cutting and sticking, or with sports day, but I was in my element.  I found I was really looking forward to going into school to help, and started toying with the idea of retraining as a teacher.  What was clear to me from my experience at my children’s school, however, was the I wasn’t cut out to work in primary, so I offered my services a morning a week in the local secondary school.  I went on to train and work there as a Maths teacher for two years, so my volunteering at the primary school stopped for a while.

Some years later, in my still part-time ‘day job’ I was involved with Young Engineers Clubs and the newly emerging STEM Clubs in secondary schools.  I asked Pixies Hill if I could run an after-school club for them.  The only day we could fit it in was Friday, and children signed up for the term to stay from 3.15 – 4.30.  I’m realistic that some parents saw it as free/cheap childcare, however, I was thrilled when we got as many as 16 Year 5 and 6 children (out of a possible 60) turning up bouncing full of energy in the dining room at the end of the school week.

I will write more about my specific experience and advice on running a primary STEM club in a different blog post, but the main thing to add here is how everything changed for the even better when I found someone to help.  As a STEM Ambassador myself, I approached the local Hertfordshire SETPoint and was put in touch with a number of volunteers, one of whom was Phil Robbins.  He was a young, enthusiastic practising engineer working nearby and looking to get experience to support his application to gain chartered status with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. His company finished work early on Fridays, and by working through his lunch break, he was able, with the blessing of his boss, to get away in time come along most weeks to help out at the club. 

My children left the school, but we still carried on until both Phil and I were offered new jobs which would make it impossible to attend the school regularly. The club ran for 7 terms, ending at Christmas 2012, and children and parents who were involved still talk about it fondly when they see me.

There was a clear benefit to the school and the students involved.  Phil is now a chartered engineer, and I have gained a great deal of insight by having the direct connection with STEM activities, and the link with my children’s school.  However, if I hadn’t had the idea, or the confidence, to offer to help with maths, or run the club, I would probably have still have been listening to readers and helping with sports day – not that these are any less valuable, but there are probably other parents more capable at these and without the STEM skills. 

And a final benefit was to enable the children and their parents to be introduced in person to a woman engineer.  At the end of the first term I arranged for the children to show examples of their work at parents’ sharing assembly, and they introduced it with ‘We do STEM Club every week with Emily’s Mum.  She’s an Engineer’.  How much influence could that have?  We’ll never know, but in a world where the stereotypes are still pretty pervasive, every little helps.

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