Amelia's children

7th November 2003 at 00:00
For nearly 20 years Amelia Fysh ran a radical nursery that was championing inclusion for special needs children decades before the Warnock report. It was a special place where creativity and individuality flourished. Amelia's beliefs are once again gaining currency and, now 81, she has been tempted out of retirement to educate a new generation of early years specialists.

Elaine Williams met her

From the outside Amelia Fysh's house looks pretty much like any other Fifties semi; a classic tribute to post-war austerity. But it's a misleading impression. When you step inside her home you are greeted by a notice that says: "The enthusiastic, to those who are not, are always something of a trial."

It would be hard to find a more enthusiastic 81-year-old than Mrs Fysh. She is an impassioned early years educator, her home a shrine to child development: children's drawings cover the walls; papers and books on child development, much of them stemming from her own observations, are piled everywhere along with hundreds of photographs - taken by Amelia - of children playing. Her Buckinghamshire garden, defying suburban tidiness, is full of wild, hidden areas, an evocative place where children from the local primary school still enjoy drawing.

Amelia Fysh is fearful that the individuality of children is being eroded by the torrent of tick-box and targeting policies aimed at early years, by learning goals and profiles that have to be met and measured. Goals, she says, are for football. Children should be put in a stimulating environment and left to develop at their own pace and in their own time. "For God's sake," she says, "give them their first five years for themselves. That's all I ask."

Between 1956 and 1972 Amelia Fysh ran a pioneering nursery school, Beech Green in Aylesbury, before she left to become a teacher trainer. What is remarkable about her time there is not only her commitment to the inclusion of children with disabilities, the emphasis on outdoor play, the provision of an environment that allowed children to follow their own creative noses, but the record she made of all this work. Some of the hundreds of children's drawings she collected are held at the National Arts Education Archive in Bretton Hall College, West Yorkshire. And Power Drawing, the educational programme of the Campaign for Drawing, is encouraging teachers to follow her example and keep collections as evidence of their pupils'


She also has hundreds of photographs spanning three decades that she took of Beech Green children at play. Amelia snapped moments of her nursery pupils' lives that are a wonderful record of children lost in their own worlds of make-believe. "Pretending," she observes, is crucial to development. A boy parades in front of a sentry box made from a cardboard box; a girl hammers bottle tops on to a plank; two girls dressed like mothers push their dolly's clothes through a wringer; a boy and girl play at hairdressers with some old rollers; Jamie, a boy with brittle bones, may be strapped into a plastic frame but he is turning the steering wheel of a car made out of blocks of wood while another boy sits patiently as his passenger. "Jamie died when he was six and a half," says Amelia, "but he had a great quality of life and made many drawings."

These photographs also bear witness to the radically inclusive nature of the Beech Green nursery, which was set up in 1942 by Save the Children initially for evacuees and the children of mothers working for the war effort. During her time as head Amelia took in nearly 50 children with disabilities such as Down's syndrome, spina bifida, autism, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment, haemophilia and epilepsy, not to mention those suffering "social and emotional deprivation".

Amelia is acknowledged to have been ahead of her time, practising inclusion long before the 1978 Warnock report. "If we had waited for Warnock," she says, "they would never have had a place." Integration was made easier by allowing pupils to express their natural tendency towards inclusion through creative play. "Other pupils knew those children were special," she says, "but when it came to playing they were just one of them."

Beech Green gave evidence to the Plowden committee, whose report in 1967 marked a turning point in primary education, emphasising learning through discovery, environmental awareness and group work. Amelia's pupils spent a lot of their time outdoors making things from old rubber tyres, painting, dancing, singing, holding their guinea pigs in old felt hats while others cleaned out the cages, making sculptures in the snow - all recorded through the eye of a woman who revels in their individuality.

"Now, just look at that girl there," cries Amelia, pointing at pictures of Emma, who had spina bifida and hydrocephalus, reaching up to paint at an easel and sitting in her wheelchair holding hands in a dancing ring. By the side of these photographs Amelia has written: "Weren't we lucky to have such wonderful children." The entire collection is annotated in this way.

Although steeped in educational theory, inspired by Piaget, Susan Isaacs and latterly Tina Bruce, she has never subscribed totally to one school of thought. No single theory, she maintains, "fits any one child or situation at any age or time. I can't stand those people who know they've got a system and it works." She rejoiced in pupils as individuals and she rejoices in them still. Her memory is peopled by them and the photographs prompt her to many stories. She can remember their families and how they developed into adulthood. She is in touch with many of them still, including Jamie's and Emma's parents (Emma died aged 17). "When you're working with under-fives you have such a lot to do with the mothers and fathers."

Now Buckinghamshire LEA is hoping to harness Mrs Fysh's experience and expertise by getting her to participate in training on inclusion and special needs for its nursery and child care providers (her first seminar is scheduled for January 19). It is something she is keen to do. Although she suffers acutely from arthritis and tires in the afternoons, there is an urgency in her determination to share her insights with those now involved in early years. One of her bugbears about contemporary nursery play material is its rigidity and the fact that much of it is geared to children playing alone. "I especially hate those little plastic trikes," she says.

"There is not enough taking apart and putting together, children rubbing shoulders building and making things."

Kim Hart, Buckinghamshire's head of early years development and child care service, says: "What Amelia was doing 30 years ago in terms of inclusion, the Government wants us to do now. She is a real inspiration. She believed in building on the strengths of each child, whatever they were. I wish in some ways that I had been around when she was. I feel with all the legislation we are losing our flair. If nothing else, our early years providers will learn that enthusiasm works."

Thomas Shakespeare, a social scientist at Newcastle University and well-known campaigner for inclusion and giving a voice to disabled people, was one of Amelia Fysh's pupils. Amelia says Dr Shakespeare, a sufferer of achondroplasia, a growth retardant disability, is living proof of the success of her approach in building on individual strengths. Dr Shakespeare says: "It was a good start to my life, it was a stimulating environment and I came out feeling I wasn't a problem and continued in mainstream thereafter."

His mother Susan, who still lives in Aylesbury and has stayed friends with Amelia Fysh, says: "She had a spark of genius. Children of all sorts were given enormous scope. She had an amazing ability to see their capabilities.

She was very knowledgeable, researched everything enormously and got the best out of them. Now she has this tremendous collection which is testament to it all. Paediatricians felt the work she was doing was very important in terms of what you could find out about a child from the way they draw."

Her collection of drawings at the National Arts Education Archive is called "Discovering Development with the Three to Fives: a Longitudinal Study".

Over a period of nine years, starting in 1964, she got children to "draw a man" using a felt-tipped pen and a 6in by 9in piece of paper. Whenever children saw her out with her special pens and paper they would ask if they could "do one". Some produced many drawings, others did few, but the drawings enabled Amelia to track them all through their nursery years. What she wanted to show was that every squiggle counts ("look at all that lovely scribble. You should not deride scribble") and that development is not linear ("there are forward thrusts, backward slides, pauses and renewed thrusts. The points of regression are when the children assimilate and mark time"). Some children drawing in the morning might produce minimalist squiggles simply because they are not "morning people".

Amelia Fysh is interested simply in what children are. "You scoop up the moment," she says. " I didn't have a curriculum at the nursery. I don't believe in themes, because you cannot then react to something that is happening right there and then. The environment was the curriculum.

Everything was there to stimulate their development in every way - water, building materials, dressing up clothes, you name it - and they had the freedom to choose. Discipline was firm, but within the materials chosen, not for the sake of it."

Eileen Adams, director of Power Drawing, the educational arm of the Campaign for Drawing, believes the Fysh collections should form the basis of a research project. "The pictures represent a powerful document, a visual and historical record of the power of play. We need to harness her insight and cherish such a spirit."

Amelia Fysh was brought up in Grimsby, won a scholarship to grammar school and worked for the Royal Signal Corps during the war. Afterwards she trained as an emergency teacher and started teaching a reception class of 50 in her home town. Appalled at primary class sizes, she turned to nursery education as an area that could make a real difference to children's lives and became engrossed in the field of child development. Having run a nursery class at South Parade primary in Grimsby, she moved in 1956 to Aylesbury's Beech Green, fitting in a year's diploma in child development at London University's Institute of Education along the way. That was a turning point in her practice.

Now, as a still passionate octogenarian, she believes the quest to promote education of the whole child has never been more pressing. Her beloved nursery was closed several years ago, a casualty of surplus places. "You can't imagine what I went through with that closure," she says. "It was a bitter pill. Now there is an empty building where all that wonderful work was done."

She is "sickened" by the "safety" culture, which she believes cuts children off from much-needed exploration. Her pupils clambered over walls and constructions, used hammers, and other "real" tools, but supervision was "diligent". There was only one accident during her headship and that was not during play. "A child was lying on a rest bed when it collapsed on her and took the end of her finger off. There were two student teachers on duty at the time and I asked them to find the finger. I put it in ice, whisked her off to the hospital and it was sewn back on again. We had exciting outdoor play. I don't understand all this nannying."

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