Enchanted place for lucky few

As an inspiration for parents, teachers and anyone depressed about society, one London nursery school is a must-see, writes Catherine Ormell

On a bitterly cold first day of term, prospective parents are cruising Holmewood Nursery School in Lambeth, south London, their faces shining with hope and expectation.

They may have read the school's outstanding report from the Office for Standards in Education, or perhaps a neighbour's mentioned it. Whatever, they are enchanted.

You would need to be very hard-bitten not to smile at the cowbells on the gate, the welcome in 22 languages, or the children themselves, who combine spiritedness and decorum in equal parts.

In this building, a former infant school, the two classrooms are supersaturated with photographs of children working, examples of their work, explanations of experiments, exhortations - "Science is everywhere".

The local library closed more than a year ago, so the school has set up a children's library, to encourage families to read at home.

Because many of the 110 children who come here (50 full time, 60 part time), don't have access to a garden or safe streets, the school considers it important that the curriculum is on offer outside, just as much as inside.

Pupils can choose whether to play in the playhouses or on the apparatus, pedal tricycles, study the growing herbs, or climb rope ladders. The benches in the unusually spacious grounds are covered with blankets and books (inviting, despite an icing of snow on this particular day). Even the school compost heap has waterproof drawings and explanations attached to it.

In the borderland of Brixton and Tulse Hill, with Edwardian villas and housing estates rubbing together, it is difficult to imagine a richer learning environment than Holmewood.

The OFSTED inspectors were impressed at the way the school soars above its mixed social context (high unemployment, half on free school meals, 30 per cent with English as an additional language, in a borough which until recently has had a dreadful reputation).

Their report talks of, "teaching which is good overall, and often very good"; "a stimulating learning environment which makes an outstanding contribution to all aspects of the children's development"; "good attainment"; "very good behaviour"; "a high value placed on the good quality of the relationships" - the phrases sing off the page. The final accolade is an action plan which refers only to maintaining the good standards already achieved.

Despite the praise and attention, headteacher Sue Donovan remains remarkably modest and focused.

"Most of what we do is hands-on. We don't say everyone sit down and write now . . . we work on each child as an individual to try and produce independent, self-motivated, confident learners," she says.

One strength the inspectors praised was the quality of the assessment procedures - knowing what level the children are at and how to bring them on.

The system at Holmewood is that during the day teachers scribble down observations of learning or regression on scraps of paper which are kept in a box. After school they discuss their observations.

On the day I visited, there were three new observations in one of the boxes; Samuel, dreadlocked and vivacious, had concentrated on a 25-piece puzzle for 20 minutes and discussed the shapes of the pieces; Rianna, first language Basque, had been singing songs in English using props and also doing simple subtraction; another child had recognised some letters and sung an alphabet song.

The observations are stuck in each child's file under curriculum headings, and the keyworker ticks off a curriculum chart - so she or he (they have men here too) can see a gap at a glance and encourage the child to explore a particular part of the curriculum.

This information also helps them determine each termly learning objective for each child, maybe more science for Saskia or work on social skills. Parents can look at and add to the file, so if they've been to a wedding - the teachers can use that topic in class.

The observations form the basis for the record of achievement, which each child gets at the end of their time here, and which Mrs Donovan says, without any bitterness, should provide the primary school reception teacher with all the information necessary to fill in the baseline assessments, required for four-year-olds from September 1998.

Although it's fun, Holmewood is also an earnest place, full of rigorous self-examination, dominated by photographs of children and teachers at work. There are homilies in the staff room: do I think about the presentation of work? Do I prepare adequately? Do I really know all the children in my group including those who don't make obvious demands? Painstaking explanations are pasted on the walls for parents of the curricular components of the school's minibeast theme. Each child's peg and milk carton has a photo and label on it to encourage them to read their name. God is truly in the details here.

Mrs Donovan has a simple explanation for the school's success, however - a combination of well-qualified, well-trained staff and a partnership with parents.

"The staff visit each parent at home before their child starts here," she says. "It's an opportunity to share information, talk about what the children are interested in, what the parents expectations are, explain the early years curriculum and what we're offering so we've got a common understanding of what we're doing with the children."

The parents respond enthusiastically, fundraising and matching the Pounds 4,000 capitation allowance for resources. One parent drew up the gate policy (a letter signed by all agreeing to secure the gate when arriving or leaving) another donated a plate made at pottery class.

Vinita Bearman, mother of Lokesh, aged four, and a former secondary school teacher now studying law, says: "The thing that has struck me most has been the attitude of the teachers. I've been coming for a year and they are so pleasant, smiling and friendly. I begin to wonder if they ever have any moods," she jokes. "The staff are committed, positive and dedicated, and I can see that the teachers' love for the children is genuine."

As an inspiration for parents, teachers, politicians, anthropologists, business leaders, indeed anyone depressed about modern society, Holmewood's a must-see.

Lingering in the playground, I thought desperately: could my husband be persuaded to leave west London and move to the next street? Would the headteacher be swayed if I stressed the unique qualities of my child or indeed, wrote a paean in The TES?

As if reading my thoughts, Mrs Donovan starts talking damply about having to turn hundreds of parents away. The school's criterion is proximity, and occasionally she has to pace out the distance between houses for the last few places.

She always encourages parents to see other schools, but admits: "We know there isn't enough provision and only a few lucky children will get the opportunity of a nursery education."

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