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Democrats all the way from the cradle

Circle groups are being used to promote citizenship and encourage pupils to think for themselves, writes Diane Hofkins

Matthew, a confident Year 6 boy, opens the session with the week's news.

"Thanks for waiting patiently for the key stage 2 toilets - they're now finished. Year 2's are being replaced next," he says. Science week is announced, along with progress towards a breakfast club, and pupils are thanked for voting on plans for a new garden which Year 6 will create.

Then discussion moves on to the most exciting topic - the establishment of Wroxham Radio, a new enterprise for Wroxham primary in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. Three pupils from Year 6 set out the plans so far for news, music, storytelling and other broadcasts. They explain that their class has been writing to audio companies and other electronics firms to ask for spare equipment.

"Can we have DJ decks?" asks an eager younger pupil. Lots of children, including the Year 1s, mimic scratching, pushing an imaginary vinyl back and forth on an invisible turntable.

This is one of six 15-minute "circle meeting groups" held every Tuesday morning at Wroxham. Each has a cross-section of pupils from Years 1 to 6, is supervised by one of the teachers but run by Year 6 pupils at the one-form-entry school.

This is participatory democracy in action. Matthew asks for suggestions about where to place speakers (the lunch room, the garden, the classrooms).

Next, everyone is invited to offer programme ideas. The teacher, Simon Putman, who is deputy head, goes round the circle asking each of the cross-legged children if they have any thoughts. Suggestions include comedy, adverts for the school charity, musical plays. The TES suggests having an opinion slot; the school governor wants to make sure it won't cost much (nearly everything will be free, Mr Putman explains). One young boy suggests spoof headlines - "like, 'Genetically modified dogs grow nine tails'."

Finally, Matthew asks: "How many of you would like to be DJs?" - and most hands shoot up.

Wroxham is a school full of lively, engaged pupils and teachers who know their views will be taken seriously, and that they have a real role to play in decision-making. Colourful, well-planned, child-made displays adorn classrooms and halls. Signs of participation are everywhere. On one bulletin board children have posted proposed names for the breakfast club (Brain Food Cafe is one). There is a postbox where children voted on Y6 garden plans, following a special meeting for Y6s to explain the alternatives to reception pupils, so that they would also be able to understand the choices. And, of course, the newly renovated KS2 toilets.

A year ago, Wroxham, a suburban school with only 3 per cent of children eligible for free meals, was still in special measures, into which it had plunged two years earlier. Behaviour and results had tumbled since the 1990s, when the school had been very successful. "When I first came here in January 2003, morale was at rock bottom," says Alison Peacock, the headteacher.

The school had gone grant maintained and "lost its way". To get out of special measures, Wroxham had been concentrating on the basics and on behaviour - to the extent that the children appeared to the new head to be "robotic" and devoid of their spirit. Teachers, having been bombarded with so much advice, had lost their belief that it was their job to decide how to teach.

For her first assembly, Ms Peacock brought in a worry bag and told the pupils she would need them to help her overcome her fears - for instance that, as a new girl, nobody would be her friend.

"I was trying to say, 'We're all in this together - we are a listening school,'" she says. And the same message was true for teachers. Staff would not be able to believe in a voice for children if they had no voice themselves.

Ms Peacock encouraged teachers to experiment, to think expansively. Now, when teachers want to try something new, they will probably get someone else to observe them. Or they might observe another class if they have heard that something interesting is going on. She is currently setting up faculty teams, including support staff and governors, to review and monitor the curriculum.

And she tries to to keep learning activities real. For instance, the letters to electronics firms represented a short writing exercise of the kind which would typically appear in Sats.

Jo Smith, the Y2 teacher, said she would think nothing of asking Simon Putman, who co-ordinates science, to pop his head round to check out her latest experiment.

Wroxham emerged from special measures in October 2003, and its Panda ( Performance and Assessment Report) score has risen from E, well below average, to an A. Ms Smith says: "The children come to school and feel they have a purpose - as if they're saying to themselves, 'We're improving the school for us.'" Pupils in her circle group asked for a bicycle rack so they could ride in early for the breakfast club, and so parents would n't have to drive them.

Not even the teachers had thought of that, says Ms Smith.

Ms Peacock notes how each teacher runs their circle group in a slightly different way. Ms Smith gets the child who is speaking to hold a teddy bear; Mr Putman starts with a warm-up - for instance, with each pupil saying something positive about the person next to them.

Ms Peacock developed circle groups from the principles of respectful relationships set out by circle-time guru Jenny Mosley, "extended to whole-school democracy", she says. She believes every school should try circle meeting groups. "Citizenship education comes from the ethos of the school," she says.

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