Don't say no, say wow!

9th July 2004 at 01:00
Different childhoods allow for different types of nurturing. Diane Hofkins visits two schools in the same county but worlds apart.

Nurturing comes in many forms. Sometimes you have to meet children's physical needs before anything else. Not only does it make it possible for them to learn, but it shows them they are valued.

Padiham in Lancashire has trees and an old church, and despite its grey rows of council houses, it does not appear to be an area of high social deprivation - but it is. The semi-rural town, not far from Burnley, suffers from gangs, drugs, and high unemployment.

When headteacher Julie Bradley arrived at Padiham St Leonard's CE primary four years ago, she found weary children, low expectations and poor results - only 30 per cent of 11-year-olds reached level 4 in the Sats.

Children had poor diets, insufficient sleep because of parents' lifestyles and not enough exercise. A quick survey of the pupils - 55 per cent of whom are entitled to free meals - found that 82 per cent didn't have breakfast, and those who did were likely to have eaten crisps or biscuits. So one of the first things to do was set up a breakfast club, which was quickly expanded into a homework club with table tennis and other games.

Because children were lethargic at the start of lessons, Mrs Bradley began the school day five minutes early, with a five-minute aerobic workout. "The children say 'it gets us going'," she says. "They just take their shoes off, and it is led by the teacher with lively music."

The result was better concentration and a 24 per cent improvement in mental maths tests. During lessons, there are "brain breaks" every 15 minutes, with a short burst of physical activity. "So we don't have children that mess about."

Research which has been used by accelerated learning guru Alistair Smith (whose work has had a huge influence on Padiham) shows that people's concentration goes in a big arc - good at the beginning and end of sessions. If you keep taking breaks, children will learn more.

Since not everyone can get to the breakfast club there is a healthy mid-morning snack of toast, vegetables, fruit and smoothies. Sweets and fizzy drinks are not allowed in the school. Since a number of the children have behaviour problems or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, additive-free, non-sugary food is important.

School meals are always cooked on site. As of the autumn, 75 per cent of the food will be non-processed, and 22 per cent will be organic, through a Lancashire county scheme.

After lunch, there is five minutes of yoga-type exercises. "It helps us chill," say the children.

The physical nurturing connects with confidence-building for children whose lives may have little stability outside school.

One of the first things Julie Bradley did was establish a school uniform, to help create an identity.

The school environment was improved, with soft furnishings, carpets and displays to learn from on the walls. Children's paintings hang in the hallway in frames. The temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, and there is water to drink in every classroom.

Children bring items from home - perhaps a picture of their dog - to display in the classroom. "We create a haven for them," says Mrs Bradley.

Sport, too, helps build self-esteem. A pound;5,000 Awards for All grant from the Heritage Lottery New Opportunities Fund pays for a range of professional coaches and athletes from Burnley Football Club to the England and Wales Cricket Board and including Olympic gold medal winner Craig Heap, who does gymnastics. These coaches do in-service training work with all the teachers as well, so the staff develop their PE teaching skills.

The school makes sure to teach two hours of sport every week. Activities offered during lessons and breaks have included hockey, netball, circuit training, tennis and Tai Quon Do. The playground also has a quiet area, with tabletop games such as chess. "That's made a difference to playtimes and lunchtimes," she says.

Looking after the children's physical well-being is only part of the picture. Padiham encourages children and teachers to take risks, within an atmosphere where they are praised for trying.

"Don't say no in a class if a child gives you an answer," says Mrs Bradley.

"Say 'Wow, that's a great answer. You're almost there. Who has an idea to bring it forward?'"

Learning goals are shared, and at the end of each lesson, children assess their own progress and then get a taste of lessons to follow.

"We all praise each other," says Mrs Bradley. "A teacher might say to a child, 'Thank you. I really appreciate you telling the truth there' and the child might think, 'Wow, I get praised here for telling the truth. I thought you got through life by lying,'" she says. It was all accomplished a bit at a time. "It's not rocket science. What we have done - we say as a staff, we have got a problem. How do we address it?"

One result was that the school was named the most improved primary in Sats results from 2000-2003 in Lancashire, and 35th nationally. More important, "The children look us in the eye. They believe they can do anything. They don't think, 'I won't have a job'. They believe they can be a doctor or an artist," says Mrs Bradley."

She adds that it has also boosted her confidence. "I used to be a really diffident character. What I have done is say, right, I can't do that, but I'm going to pretend that I can. Like the song, I whistle a happy tune."

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