Everyone looks forward to Friday at St David's C of E first school in Exeter. Not because it's the end of the week - "I'm sad because I'm going to miss Mrs Lankester and the whole school," says one child - but because here they make a concerted effort to turn Fridays into something special. "Despite the emphasis on literacy and numeracy, we're trying to create time to develop the social and emotional person," says Wendy Lankester, headteacher for the past nine years.
When Osiris Educational, an organisation formed five years ago to be "a heartbeat" in personal, social and health education, set up a competition - Talking Teachers - to find examples of outstanding PSE, it discovered that primary schools had much to teach the secondary sector. Because they have no curriculum slot for PSE, primary schools are more likely to concentrate on whole-school initiatives. "There were many examples of how good PSE can emanate to all aspects of school life," says Stephen Cox of Osiris.
St David's school came first in the primary category of the competition, and the reasons quickly become obvious on a visit to the school. The emphasis on Fridays is on togetherness, with children sharing their feelings and giving voice to their worries and concerns. The day begins, as all school days do here, with the parents of the 136 pupils bringing their children into the classroom. Mandy Lee, who works part-time in a newsagent's, brings four-year-old Alex into deputy head Nova Odgers's reception class and sits down with her son on a child-sized chair. "You can approach the teachers. You've got no fear there," she says. "The atmosphere is lovely." Another parent, 34-year-old Michele Figures, says: "It's not just the bad things Nova comes and tells us about but the positive things as well. Jacob (4) used to cry when I dropped him off at playgroup, but here he doesn't."
At 3.30pm the teachers bring the children out to the playground to be picked up. It's this daily routine of face-to-face contact between parents and teachers that "eliminates so many problems", says Wendy Lankester. Every parent has her home phone number. In fact, when Ofsted inspectors asked for the letters of complaint from parents - a standard procedure for assessing how difficulties are dealt with - Mrs Lankester realised the school didn't have any. "It's not that issues don't arise, just that they are cleared up quickly."
St David's is that rare and inspiring phenomenon: an emotionally intelligent school. But it was not always the case. When Wendy Lankester came to the school, it was run down and pupil numbers were dwindling. One day a child threw an electric fire at her. Such an incident would be inconceivable now. And the change is not due to the advantages of a good catchment area, as the school serves a mixed population ranging from middle class professionals to families living on council estates and the "bedsit community"; it's because relationships between pupils, parents and teachers are based on trust and kindness. The result is that numbers have doubled in the past nine years.
"It's a school where I think everyone is loved, trusted and respected," says Wendy Lankester. "Different groups within the school have ownership of their particular role and that makes it a success."
Liz Mirehsan, a teaching support assistant, takes the lead role in counselling children who are experiencing difficulties at home or at school. On Friday mornings, while the others are in class, she sees individual children in the "special room", a small pace with a cosy couch, fish tank and grandfather clock made from painted orange boxes. Liz Mirehsan talks with the children or gets out the toys, which they use to enact things they can't articulate. Some children come just once or twice, perhaps because they are new in school. Others come each week for up to a term to sort out their feelings about family breakdown or difficulty with friendships.
"We felt there was a need for children to have some form of support," says Liz Mirehsan. "Someone having the time to hear them is very important." The special room was established four years ago, but the counselling began three years before that, after the head and Liz Mirehsan had attended a course. "It's a fundamental thing in our school," says Wendy Lankester, "that has been instrumental in supporting behaviour. It's early identification. We don't wait for something major to happen."
At 11.30am every Friday, the school breaks up into one of five "family" groups. Every child and staff member joins one for the duration of their school life. Children go on outings in these groups, through which they make contact with children of other ages in the school, which goes up to Year 3.
In Mrs Lankester's Acorn group, about 25 children and one other teacher are sitting in a large circle on the floor, clapping a welcome as latecomers arrive. Ralph, a pupil, turns off the light and everyone in the circle holds hands to "pass the squeeze", a physical Chinese whisper. The head then passes a stone (actually a malachite egg) to the child on her right and as each one takes the stone they say how they are feeling. Children say they feel tired, fine, thirsty, excited because they have a party to go to tomorrow. "I'm happy because it's nearly lunchtime," says Tia. One or two pass.
Afterwards they play a communication-enhancing game in which they form pairs and first, without touching, feel the warmth from each other's hands. Then they are asked to take a piece of paper and in the pair, without talking, draw a picture or pattern together. Music plays quietly in the background. When some of the children start whispering about what to draw, Mrs Lankester goes to them and demonstrates how to communicate without language, with her own theatrically raised eyebrows, thumbs up and down and hand movements. Natalie and Sophie watch, transfixed. The delight their head takes in children is transparent. They go on to draw butterflies on a night sky of moon and stars, taking silent cues from each other.
Drawings finished, the head lights a candle in the middle of the circle to say goodbye. They end with a thought, eyes closed, for one of their friends who is off school with ME. They can say it out loud if they want to, but they don't have to. It's prayer, although it's not called that. George is given the privilege of putting out the candle with a long-handled snuffer, and they leave the room, one small boy unselfconsciously rubbing the newly cut hair on the back of his friend's head.
It's rituals like this that contribute to the exceptionally calm atmosphere at St David's. The school hums with activity, but neither children nor adults seem to shout. In the playground at lunchtime it becomes clear that there is still room for exuberance. The range of activities is startling. Children are on their knees in the spring sunshine chalking on the five blackboards set into the playground walls, playing snakes and ladders with their bodies on a large painted grid, using a giant soft dice, skipping with long ropes, dressing up in floaty scarves and nighties, and bouncing on space hoppers.
The playground is treated as an outdoor classroom, and the children have trained play leaders instead of lunchtime supervisors. Play leader Debbie Williams, also a parent at the school, is giving tickets to some children who want to go inside to play the piano, use the library or be in the special room. "We're not forever telling them what they can do and what they can't do," she says. "They organise their own play and we're here to join in."
After the Friday collective worship in which the whole school takes part, children are back in their classrooms. Even on Fridays, they manage to squeeze in the statutory time for literacy and numeracy. Every activity in the school is carefully documented, partly because it is valued but also to ward off criticism. Staff here know, in the words of one, that they "can't afford to be woolly".
The day ends with Friday time, in class groups, which teachers use in different ways. Kevin Cotter, who teaches Years 1 and 2, has his pupils planning what they will do for the next half an hour, undertaking a range of activities, then reviewing the results as a class. "There's an awful lot of directed time in school," he says. "It's important that children also view school as a resource that they can use."
Wendy Lankester has the Year 3 class playing Dragon Keys and other circle games, which they choose from a familiar repertoire. She's down on her knees on the carpet again, like a storybook grannie, having fun. The children love it. At 3.30, after sharing out pieces of apple, she releases each child with a personal message. "Thank you for making me laugh, Kirsty." "Jade, it was lovely to see you working on the computer today." "Eric, thank you for your beautiful handwriting."
Friday is not the only special day at St David's, of course. There are signs everywhere you look of the heart and spirit of this school, from the children's spotless lavatories to the shelf of small china birds and kittens at child-hand-height running along the corridor ("nothing ever disappears"), the display board of photos of the new reception children photographed in their pre-start home visit with their names underneath ("names are important to us here"), the hyacinths and daffodils blooming under the tree in the back playground ("planted by the gardening club").
All this is clearly down to Wendy Lankester's vision. "In spite of literacy, in spite of numeracy, we aim for peaks in children's lives," she says. "Things that are memorable." Christian faith and a lifetime in teaching have given her the courage of her convictions, but much of the magic here could be achieved by any primary school subscribing to the opening words of St David's mission statement: "We believe that people are important."
Osiris Educational is hosting a Talking Teachers conference on March 31 and April 1 in Warwickshire. For further details contact Osiris at 90 Abbey Road, Bardney, Lincoln, LN3 5XD.Tel: 01526 398539. Website: www.pse2000.co.uk
The Winners of Osiris Educational's Talking Teachers award, some of whose staff will be giving seminars at the Talking Teachers conference at the end of March, are:
Primary school category
First St David's C of E school, Exeter
Second Haslemere first school, London borough of Merton
Third Moseley primary school, Coventry
Secondary School category
First Twynham comprehensive school, Christchurch, Dorset
Tied second Lord Mayor Treloar school, Hampshire, and Percy Hedley school, Newcastle upon Tyne, both of which are special schools