A beacon school in south London is attracting visitors from home and abroad keen to learn from its successful child-centred approach. Diane Hofkins was one of them
ear 6 have made shoes, which are lined up in a row on the window-sill. The national curriculum connection is materials and their properties. Each is well-constructed and highly original. One lights up, via a switch at the heel; another resembles a garden.
Anna House, head of Ridgeway primary, is particularly proud of these shoes, which she feels symbolise the 600-plus pupil Croydon beacon school's philosophy. All have been executed to a high standard, but in every child's own way.
"We encourage them to take risks", she says. "We are not aiming for everybody to get everything right. We are aiming to develop their learning."
Walking through the classrooms from Nursery to Y6 is like watching a speeded up film of a child's intellectual development. Such a tour could be used as a visible demonstration of what progression looks like, from the type of work the children are doing to the displays on the walls.
Many visitors from home and abroad who come to Ridgeway are amazed to see in every classroom, children engaged and purposeful, even when the teacher is nowhere near.
Ridgeway primary would have Lady Plowden, whose seminal 1967 report advocated child-centred, active learning, cheering from her grave. An up-graded type of topic-work is used, known as "contexts for learning", which encourage children to make connections and develop their thinking.
These are much more rigorous than the projects of old, where content and outcomes were often hit or miss. National curriculum content, including English, is carefully planned in (there is no literacy hour, but 60 per cent reach level 5). Number is the one area taught discretely.
In Y2, for instance, the theme, "a world of contrasts" had children looking at the Arctic and the deserts; day and night; Roald Amundsen, Lawrence of Arabia and Neil Armstrong; umbrellas and sunshades.
When I visited, Y2's theme was natural energy, including human, solar and wind. On the white board, it said: What am I doing? Why? Is it my best? Have I got another idea? The joined-up thinking the school fosters was already apparent. One boy had made a herring gull out of straws because birds have hollow bones.
From the nursery up, where children can be found paddling on a "beach" in the playground, "one of the things we value is children as independent learners", says Mrs House. "We are not handing it to them on a plate, but expecting them to use the learning environment independently."
By Y4 children are engaged in such mind-stretching projects as designing a religious building for the 21st century, and by Y6 they are building fantasy environments (an underwater world, a theme park on a street, a place of charm). Children learn through open-ended challenges, and assessment carried out through "learning conversations".
This type of teaching is difficult at first, concedes assistant head Shirley Lawrence, "but once you've got it it's more natural". Ridgeway's situation in a very nice neighbourhood must surely make it easier, although its catchment is broadening as the school expands from two to three-form entry, but the senior team say they have all taught in deprived areas, and followed the same philosophy.
Through the years of central prescription Ridgeway's management team, Mrs House, Ms Lawrence and deputy head Joanna Redzimski, stuck to their belief in empowering individuals, both children and teachers, rejected the literacy hour structure and pressure to conform to subject-based teaching.
Ridgeway's curriculum is built firmly on their values, which stem from early-years practice centred on active and interconnected learning, relationships and high aspirations. This is the core of everything. The school is unusual in that its head has her roots in that phase, and has even been a nursery head.
When Ridgeway infant school merged with the less successful junior school in 1996, its philosophy was built from the bottom up. "When teachers from other schools ask, 'Where do you start?' we say, 'What are your values?', says Mrs House.
Summer creativity series, 26
THE RIDGEWAY WAY
* belief in a child-centred approach
* commitment to active (involving) learning experiences
* experience that an extended theme results in involvement in learning
* knowledge that active, involved, interested children behave well
* knowledge that relationships are bonded by shared interests
* experience that such learning is powerful