Always taken in the right spirit

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
The governors of an inner London primary are helping to lead assemblies. Victoria Neumark reports.

The school of St James and St Michael (C of E) in Bayswater has 166 children on its roll who between them speak 28 languages. This year the turnover of children will be "normal" at about 30 per cent; two years ago it was 253 per cent. Most of the children come as refugees from war-torn countries and live in bed and breakfast hotels.

An old Victorian building on several levels around a courtyard, so short of space that there is a covered playground beneath the open court, the school is a haven of tranquil growth. On hot days, the nursery children splash in water and sand. Plants grow against the walls. Children's work on class walls is full of colour and thought. The children, grouped in six mixed-age classes, show little trace of their gruelling experiences. Why is it such a happy school?

Rejji Raj, teacher of Class Jupiter and RE and humanities co-ordinator, has been introducing the children to the local community. Bayswater, an area of rich hotels, offices, B and Bs and small service industries, is not a village as so many London localities are. Only a small percentage of children remain in the area for the whole of their primary schooling. And, as Mr Raj ruefully observes, "inner city people don't really catch your eye and communicate".

The aim of the programme is for the children to "feel safe - that there is another human being that they recognise. They are such strangers that it's a great pleasure when someone says hello." Trips to the cinema - recently the children from Rejji Raj's class saw Jungle Book - add to the sense that the world out there contains fun and possibility as well as hardship and danger.

The children have taken tea at the Park Hotel and invited the manager and other locals to tea at the school. They visit the social club at the church to which the school is attached and have "adopted grannies".

All this careful endeavour is epitomised in the policy of inviting governors to lead school assemblies. Bill Wilson, chair of governors and the local vicar, takes the religious assemblies. Using Here I Am by Ann Byrne and Chris Malone (Harper Collins), the religious assemblies follow a two-year cycle under the overall direction of the diocesan board. David Fisher, Bill Wilson's pastoral assistant, runs the school chess club and sees 15 to 20 of the children in Sunday school each week. "It's all part of doing whatever we can to make the children feel part of the church community."

Lynn Oram, a parent governor from the St James Parish Council, has a child in Class Sun. She chose the school because "all the teachers know all the children". Now she also knows all the children. Recently she took an assembly about Mothering Sunday, teaching the children a song about mothers - and enjoyed it so much that she is planning to take more. But what about the 50 per cent of children who are non-Christian?

Linda Thompson has just completed a term as parent governor. She chose the school for her daughter Megan after noticing on a visit a map of the world with every child's name drawn on it with arrows. She took an assembly on the theme of the Chipko movement in India. Rejji Raj told her about the Chipkos, tree-hugging environmentalists who invoke Indian myths, and lent her an Indian sari. "The children were really listening and so interested," says Linda. "Their hands just shot up to ask questions and they keep coming up to me even now and saying 'Thank you for your assembly Linda'."

Other religions in the school include Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Rastafarian, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Moonies and "who knows who else will come?" says Rejji Raj. Festivals celebrated include Diwali, Japanese harvest breakfast, Ramadan and Chanukah as well as Christmas and Easter.

Last year the children dressed in Victorian costume and went egg-rolling in Hyde Park for Easter. They also take a pre-Easter service in the church itself. "They know our clergy from the assemblies; they are completely relaxed, " explains Mr Raj.

Assemblies are part of the glue which binds the school together. Parents are always invited to stay. A weekly pattern of class, infants, headteacher-led singing, and show and tell assemblies establishes a pattern of listening and respecting others. Governors, whether local clergy or parents, link into the benevolent structure in which the school enfolds its children.

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