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Mummies and not-mummies

The first column in a monthly series by Patience, a parent helper in Reception. There are 33 children in the class. The oldest are just over five years old, the youngest barely more than four. The newest came two days ago. He doesn't speak English. When all the children sit on the carpet for the register, he sits at the front, squirming like the rest but concentrating like mad. Sometimes his lips move, sometimes he speaks, but it is Turkish and we don't know what it means. "Ssh," says the nursery nurse, Debbie. "Mrs Meadows is speaking." Erlan sshes.

Looking at Erlan, Mrs. Meadows feels gloomy. "How can we manage? We've never had so many children in a reception class. Now Erlan, and he doesn't know any English. Not a word." But actually, they manage very well. Today they have Jemima, another parent, who is doing a counting game and me, acting out the Three Little Pigs with five children. But first we have the register.

One little girl will not answer. Past the half term and she will not answer. "Fenella, answer please. Fenella, it's not very polite not to answer. You're the only child who does not answer, Fenella." Silence. Fenella, a pretty child dolled up with earrings, ringlets, fancy ankle socks and shiny shoes, gives a roguish smile and puts her hands over her mouth. This gesture, clearly intended to be delightfully mischievous, rouses in me - and I can see, in all the other adults in the room - the desire to shout and smack.

Mrs Meadows merely compresses her mouth and says, with a glint of steel in her voice. "Fenella, that is very rude. Take your hands down, please." Sulkily, Fenella complies. This is why Mrs Meadows is a teacher and I am just a mother.

Mrs Meadows moves on, but I cast a glare in Fenella's direction. If she was mine . . . Then I catch myself. She is only four years old, after all. But there are 32 others in the class.

This week, the topic is houses and Mrs Meadows is helping children to name and locate parts of houses. Debbie is helping children to build with blocks and to paint pictures of their own homes. They have to remember the colours of their own front doors and windows and bricks. One little girl thinks she has gold bricks - or maybe she would just like gold bricks. The two boys who are building with bricks decide to make roads going through office blocks. A kind of megalopolis dominates the classroom.

Down on the carpet as the Wolf huffs and puffs for all she is worth and the rest of us chorus "I'll huff, and I'll puff and I'll blow your house down", I am becoming uneasily aware that the Three Little Pigs offers an equally savage vision. What did happen to the Wolf, after all? "Went in the pot," say the children. And what do pigs eat? Wolves, perhaps. Floundering, I look round for help. But the children have lost interest.

"What abut Peep-O?" suggests Mary. "That's my favourite." The others nod. A consensus of shared literature, shared experiences, begins to knit this group and the wider group together.

Afterwards, the teaching staff hear the story group talking, how they liked the story, how they did acting. And this is one of many activities which without unpaid helpers could not be incorporated into the school day, but which adds to the feeling of richness and intellectual unfolding with which the classroom is ripe.

Another thing that happens in the day is numbers. En masse, these children know their numbers better than their colours - "What is purple?" - and recognise one to five in an eager chorus. They know the names of the numbers, they (sort of) can draw them and they can count one, two, three, four, four again, whoops!

Fenella doesn't want to stand up when she is one of five children, so we can only count four. Oh dear. Mrs. Meadows gets out her Special Look and there are five children.

"Number five is like a man with a fat tummy and we put on the hat, like this," says Mrs Meadows, drawing a satisfactory round "5". The children shriek with laughter and even after they scatter to their different activities, I hear one or two mulling over the joke: "A man with a fat tummy!" Typically, they relate numbers to themselves. "I'm five." "So'm I!" "I'm four, but I'm going to be five!" This is my first time in the classroom and I see it partly through the teachers' eyes - divided into areas for different tasks, an envir-onment for learning through which the children must be poured in different combinations; and partly through the eyes of the children - a space crowded with wonders, where new behaviours are demanded, full of half-known schoolmates and mummies who are not mummies.

For Jake, my child, my presence is both reassuring and confusing. Here I am, a clear mummy, yet here I am behaving like a not-mummy and playing at stories (which we always do every evening at home) with other children.

"It is hard," agrees Mrs Meadows, "but it wouldn't really be good for him or the others if he is always in your group." I agree; but will Jake?

He sulks - probably he is just as annoying as Fenella, in his own way - and has to sit on my lap outside for half of playtime until his friend Alan lures him away with a yellow hoop.

The children swirl around the playground like the autumn leaves, holding hands, squeaking, rolling hoops. They run up to the mummies and not-mummies and rush away. The whistle blows and they rush up like puppies. All the morning reluctance to go in to school is forgotten.

Lining up to go back in, I notice with a flush of proprietory pride that Our Class make the neatest queue of all the reception classes. "They're a nice class, don't you think?" I say to Debbie. She grins back. "Great, aren't they?"

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