We need the reflexes we are born with to survive - but then we need to shake them off to progress. When one school helped pupils unlearn their primitive responses, they made spectacular progress. Stephanie Northen reports
Sea anemones fill the school hall. Their tentacles move slowly in the air, then clasp their bodies tightly. Next come the swans, gliding across smooth ponds. And here are some agitated caterpillars, raising big heads above long, straight bodies. The final metamorphosis happens as the group of Year 3 pupils stands up and leaves for assembly.
For the past eight months, these 11 youngsters have spent 15 minutes a day, four times a week, practising exercises introduced as part of a teacher-research project in Knowle primary near Solihull in the West Midlands. The slow, controlled movements performed lying on the floor are almost second nature to them now. And so they should be, because the children are essentially reliving their first year of life.
Look closely and the anemones resemble babies waving arms and legs in the air. The caterpillars echo an infant's struggle to lift its heavy head. And the swans moving across the floor are a first attempt to crawl.
The Exercise for Learning programme - developed by Sally Goddard Blythe of the Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester - is based on babies being born with basic reflexes, such as sucking, that they need to survive their first year of life. This primitive mental software has to be left behind or it can hamper their progress. An inability to hold a pencil, to sit still, to balance on one leg - never mind concentrate and learn to read - can indicate problems with retained reflexes.
These reflexes come from the most ancient part of the human mind. Called the brain stem, it evolved 500 million years ago and has a lot in common with the thinking equipment of a reptile. Exercise for Learning, by going back to babyhood, helps young minds to move on. And not-so-young ones too.
Staff at Knowle say that researching the effectiveness of the programme has helped them professionally.
Ruth Wolinski, a Year 3 classroom teacher, has been involved from the start, three years ago. "I never thought of myself as a researcher," she says. "I'm a practical person who just likes to see what works. But I needed to quantify results and to develop basic research techniques. It helped me develop as a person and has added another strand to my classroom practice."
At first, staff encouraged parents to do the exercises at home with their children. But they realised that they needed more controlled conditions.
"It really had to be a school research project. We knew what we wanted to see, and we could ensure that the children did the exercises every day," says Celia O'Donovan, a parent governor who ran the programme with Ruth Wolinski and the former head, Pat Preedy.
A beacon primary, Knowle prides itself on a research-based ethos - appropriately enough for a school opened by Margaret Thatcher when she was science minister in 1972. Thirty-four years on, the governors have a fund for investigative-minded teachers, and the new head, Jenny Godsall, is a believer. "I chose this school," she says. "Of course I couldn't make them choose me, but I wanted to work in a school with this approach. My predecessor encouraged staff to get involved in research and now they are driven."
Jenny Godsall defines this approach as a belief in developing a strategy, then testing it, reviewing it and changing it if necessary. "You do it because it makes a difference for the children - and ditch it if it doesn't. "The key to success here is that we haven't stopped," she says.
"We haven't stopped reflecting on our practice and we have a growing bank of knowledge. And we are all committed to an innovative approach to education."
Last summer, Ruth, Celia and Pat set up an experiment comparing the progress made in reading between nine Year 3 Knowle children and nine control-group pupils from a similar school. The results were impressive.
After nine months of Exercise for Learning, the Knowle children had steamed ahead, making on average 14 months progress in reading and comprehension.
By contrast, the control group made only eight months progress in reading accuracy and four months in comprehension.
Success is a spur and Ruth Wolinski is keen to do more research and for more teachers to join her. "It is important to move forward and learn new things. You grow mentally," she says. "And it is a chance for teachers to have a say in what is going on. We can tell people, 'Try this - it really does work and here's the evidence.' It is such a change from being on the receiving end of initiatives imposed from the outside."
Inside Knowle's lower school hall, Year 2 children are starting on an Exercise for Learning circuit, developed by the staff. They hone their balancing skills on Space Hoppers (balls children sit on) and small rotating platforms. They crawl commando-style through a toy tunnel and learn to roll sausage-like along a mat. Some walk carefully backwards, one foot placed exactly behind the other, while others squeeze a ball in alternate hands. The aim is to improve co-ordination, balance and concentration, helping both sides of the brain work as a whole.
Their teachers watch intently. It is truly an exercise in learning for everyone.
For more information on Exercise for Learning, contact Jenny Godsall, Knowle primary. Tel: 01564 776209. The Institute of Neuro-Physiological Psychology: www.inpp.org.ukExercise for Learning, summary of Knowle research published by the National Teacher Research Panel: www.standards.dfee.gov.ukntrplibpdf894153