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Blossoms behind the terraces

"Use the child's own experience" is one of the most venerable and frequently repeated homilies in primary education. But if the teachers at Crowcroft primary had contented themselves with this motto, the Manchester school would never have earned its gold star from the commission.

Many of its pupils' experience of the world are confined entirely to the battered red-brick terraces between home and school, enlivened only by the daily excursion to the shops.

Their parents are barely literate and too ashamed of their own ignorance to take their children into a library. Children start school without ever seeing a book, or knowing what they are for.

Even play was impoverished by disadvantage, says head Heather Stemp: "It's very rare for our new children to play mothers and fathers or cops and robbers spontaneously. They don't know how to play imaginatively and the traditional playground games seem to have died out - we have to show them, and then they absolutely love it."

Every member of staff is engaged in a war on disadvantage, in which no child is ever written off as hopeless.

Crowcroft serves a network of back-to-back terraced housing on the edge of inner-city Manchester. The area is home to much of the city's Asian community, most of whom are recent immigrants. Unemployment is high and levels of educational achievement low.

All the traditional school indicators of disadvantage are present - the number of pupils entitled to free meals has actually increased from 60 to 66 per cent since the commission visited and most of the Asian children do not speak English at home.

The 1930s buildings are plagued by dry rot, leaks and arsonists (an entire section of the school burnt down five years ago) and no one can remember how long the "temporary" classrooms have been there.

As an extra challenge, it was targeted for seven years in a campaign against multicultural education by a right-wing pressure group, Parental Alliance for Choice in Education. Staff received hate mail and were pilloried in the press as anti-patriotic subversives.

These bald facts are difficult to remember when Heather Stemp takes you along the glassed-in verandah that skirts the school (it's a relic of the vogue for fresh air in the 1930s when many pupils suffered from TB). She points modestly at luxuriant displays of art and writing, including a group of poems written for Peaceful Play Week - part of an anti-bullying drive organised by the pupils and their parents.

The appearance of the school, inside and out, would be the envy of parents from Hampstead or Surrey - how many inner-city primaries have landscaped gardens with honeysuckle-draped pergolas? The emphasis on aesthetics speaks volumes about how children here are valued.

Walls are punctuated with signs in Punjabi and Urdu - the school has a Section-11-funded Punjabi speaker who acts as a lifeline for new Asian children and their parents. If a child enters the nursery at three-and-a-half with no English, the school aims to make them competent by reception year.

Staff are acutely aware that literacy begins at home and two complementary reading schemes - Kickstart for children, and Early Start which teaches parents to read - were invented by two teachers at the school.

Kickstart shares many of the features of Reading Recovery, but puts more emphasis on word recognition.

Heather Stemp underplays her role in the school's success, though visitors would tend to conclude her combination of intelligent insight and compassion must be crucial.

She prefers to emphasise the importance of selecting staff who "share an absolute conviction that effective teaching can make a difference".

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