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Masters of their own learning

Primary pupils are to be given the freedom to leave the classroom and manage their own studies. Helen Ward reports

Holly Smith pauses to think about what she would most like to change about her school, Kew Riverside primary. "Nothing," said the five-year-old.

The Office for Standards in Education came to much the same conclusion on its visit to the London primary last term, which was described by inspectors as inspirational.

But Rachel Phillips, headteacher, is only at the beginning of her plans for the new one-form entry school. Her vision is of a school in which children have some choice over when to be in class, go out to play and visit different areas in the school devoted to learning: the library, a reading alcove or quiet area.

"The whole school should be a classroom," said the 34-year-old former deputy head of Churchfield primary in Edmonton, north London.

"If children need peace and quiet away from a busy classroom, we should enable them to have that. If a child wants to go to the library, why do we say 'You can't do that because your library time is not until a week next Tuesday?' We should say 'Yes'. We should not put up barriers to learning."

She wants to give children as young as six the freedom to leave the classroom to work on their own. Pupils would need to be in class when being taught, but once they had been set a task and a period of time in which to do it, they could leave. They would only be able to do this with permission and would have to let their teacher know where they were by putting their name on a board in each classroom. The children would also be expected to build their own breaktimes into the morning.

Mrs Phillips, who has been praised by inspectors as having the "highest quality of leadership", hopes to introduce the system once she has enough staff to ensure full supervision. The job will be made easier by the fact the school is built around a playground, with all classrooms opening on to it.

At the moment Mrs Phillips has just two teachers, a school business manager, and two teaching assistants to work with 17 Year 1 children and 30 in reception.

By 2008 the school is expected to be full, with around 210 pupils from reception to Year 6.

Part of Mrs Phillips's belief in the ability of young children to handle their own learning stems from pupils' existing attitudes.

In the school hall a jungle mural is thick with stuck-on paper leaves. Each leaf bears a message, saying that a particular child has been kind, hard-working or doing someone a favour. These much sought-after leaves are not just given out by teachers but by parents and pupils.

"If children only get leaves from teachers, they learn to behave themselves in order to please adults," said Mrs Phillips. "What I wanted was for children to work hard or be kind because it was a good thing to do."


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