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Phoenix arisen

The early years are well catered for in a new primary, reports Victoria Neumark

In February 1992, Blue Gate Fields school in Wapping burned down. By September, work was starting on a replacement on the same site, and by last September the new Blue Gate Fields - now offering 50 per cent more capacity - was open.

"It's the fastest we've ever done it," says Bruce Glockling, head of education development for the London borough of Tower Hamlets. The new school is bright and airy, with infant and junior departments sharing an entrance off a paved, planted walkway. In place of its previous double nursery, it houses three early-years units.

Rebuilding cost Pounds 3.1 million, mostly contributed by insurance and LEA capital funding, but with an additional Pounds 500,000 from the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) for two early- years units on site. By law, the LDDC cannot contribute to statutory education or to running costs, so it has been investing heavily in early years units and nurseries in the area - at least four so far.

Blue Gate Fields includes a library, conference room, computer facilities in offices, two halls and imaginatively designed play areas. There is a parents' room (also funded by LDDC) and although the building was "done in an awful hurry" (according to Bruce Glockling) there is a confidence and sweep in its plan which bespeaks the experience of the planning authority.

Tower Hamlets has built seven new primary schools in the past five years and is now finishing another, plus two new secondary schools. The area has seen a steep increase in its school-age population which has perforce been matched by an equally steep learning curve for the LEA. A chance to rebuild a school was also a chance to increase from two-form to three-form entry.

Yet if rising rolls made growth in Blue Gate Fields mandatory, with a roll projected to rise to 710 by 1999, Tower Hamlets is also driven by a policy of providing nursery education to every child whose parents want it.

Bruce Glockling says: "Like everything in Tower Hamlets, we are trail-blazers." By every possible measure, there is vast social deprivation in the borough and educationists feel that the longer children have in school, the better. Then there is the language problem. With many Bangladeshi families still monoglot Sylheti speakers, "early-years provision is absolutely key", says Mr Glockling.

From the LDDC point of view, nursery provision offers opportunities to free parents to return to work or training. Parents in work, believes Derek Smith, education projects officer at the LDDC, "rejuvenate the area". The school also represents a community facility and a chance for parents to learn English as a second language.

For Alison Laing, head of the infant school, the fact that each child will have had at least full three years of infant schooling is already paying dividends which can be measured against the progress of those who have had just seven terms.

Walking round the school, its light-filled spaces immediately relax and please the eye. All around are grim and less grim blocks of flats. But the gables, painted pillars and projecting balconies of the school strike a friendly note while the balconies, large wooden structures, are a novel solution to problems of play space. The site is relatively cramped and in order to comply with DFE regulations for the expanded school roll, extra space had to be created.

The opportunity has been seized to plant pots of flowers, to have wet and sandy play activities and to store and use messy craft equipment. The early years' units have a large storage space which is also an arena for outdoor play even when it is raining.

Inside, portholes give on to the hall, also used for large-apparatus gymnastics, and the drama and music studio: no group need feel isolated. Within each of the early- years units, named Saturn, Pluto and Venus, there are 30 reception children (aged 4-5), 20 full-time nursery children and 15 part-time younger nursery children, all on a rolling programme moving up through the curriculum.

Within each classroom meticulous order reigns. There is a reading corner, a science area, a "messy play" area opening out on to the courtyard where climbing apparatus and large mobile toys are available, an imaginative play area ("This is a travel agent at the moment") a construction toy area, areas for maths, the computer, writing, listening to audio tapes and a cushioned area for telling stories.

Each unit has its own toilets and washrooms, sinks and a small kitchen for staff, who do not leave the class for breaktimes. In each unit, two teachers, two nursery nurses, one classroom assistant and (some of the time) a language achievement project teacher (formerly section 11) work in a team. Planning for the curriculum must be as meticulous as planning for the space. Each teacher has "key children" whom they assess; informal meetings monitor progress daily and formal ones fortnightly.

After each session from Saturn, Pluto and Venus children re-assemble for stories, and to divide into groups. Ninety-six per cent of the intake is Bangladeshi, and developing linguistic skills is at a premium, with all stories taking a dialogue form. Lunch is served at the tables which are used for messy play and cleared up by the staff.

Children eddy and flow through the day and through the class: just, indeed as the planets revolve in their orbits.

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