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Jemma's brilliant world takes prize

The "city of people" living inside an eight-year-old's head won her a trip to London yesterday as a finalist in The TES's Write Away competition.

Jemma Leech, eight, of Penarth, is severely disabled and unable to speak or walk. She was born with total body cerebral palsy but has astounded her parents and teachers with her intellectual powers. She is now studying literature at A-level standard.

She wowed the Write Away judges with an essay entitled "Autobiography", which describes her great love of music.

In it she writes: "Many people cannot imagine how there could be a brain in this body. They see a broken child like a broken toy. Few people suspect a city of people lives inside my fractured case with artists, musicians, politicians, teachers, priests and spacemen all vying for airtime on Jemma FM."

Jemma's teacher Melody Jones, language co-ordinator at Palmerston primary in Barry, said that teaching her was awe-inspiring.

"Jemma is the most gifted child I have ever taught. She reads 10 to 15 times faster than normal and devoured Pride and Prejudice in an hour," she said.

"She has a phenomenal memory and an inherent gift which leaves everyone reeling. I feel immensely privileged."

Jemma's mother Caroline, 38, said: "When she was five we realised she had taught herself to read, with a fabulous vocabulary."

Jemma communicates by pointing to letters which are typed on to a computer.

Even then she needs someone to support her arm, making it a painstaking process.

"She composed seven poems for her grandfather's 80th birthday this year,"

added Mrs Leach. "One was a pastiche of Alfred Noyes's 'The Highwayman'."

But Jemma's greatest love is for music, particularly opera. Both parents worked for Welsh National Opera - her father Perryn, 41, is technical director and Mrs Leech was head of press until she resigned in January to spend more time with Jemma and five-year-old twins Kirsty and Rory.

Jemma has devised her own notation system and is busy composing an aria at the moment.

But she also knows how to have fun with her friends at Palmerston, a mainstream school with a small unit for physically disabled children.

Headteacher Mark Middlemiss said Jemma took part in a full range of school activities.

"Our children do not see the child in the wheelchair - they just see the child," he said.

teacher magazine 8-11

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