When Roy Baxter joined Hillside Avenue Primary School in Norwich four years ago he had not anticipated that his duties would include another life as an elf. "I felt a fool the first time," he remembers. "But it's no good being a reluctant elf: you're much better going for it and overcoming your shyness by putting your all into it." The Year 2 teacher, who has little experience of theatricals, says that playing the fool suited him and took away some of the embarrassment.
The invitation to become Santa's elf came after the school's Parent Teacher Association (PTA) asked Roy if he would be prepared to dress up for the Christmas fair.
"I had to be talked into it," he says. "The idea was that I would keep the children busy while they waited in the queue for Santa's Grotto and then take them through to meet Santa. If you have 100 or so people waiting in a queue for Santa, they get a bit bored." The part of Santa traditionally goes to one of the children's grandfathers. "We try to find a nice, portly gentleman," says Roy.
Hillside Avenue, like many other primaries, doesn't want to risk shattering children's belief in Father Christmas by allowing them to recognise one of their teachers in the role. But even playing Santa's elf, Roy says many of the younger children don't realise that it's him. "They're suspended between belief and non-belief," he says. "They're still willing to believe it's not you."
The PTA supplied half an elf costume - a green tunic, a la Robin Hood, with tattered edges - and Roy improvised the rest, adding cap and bells and some seasonal touches of red and white.
Now, after a couple of years' service at the Christmas fair, Roy has handed the role on to a female teacher. But meanwhile he has found all manner of other uses for his costume. He loans it to staff to wear at their class Christmas parties - "it's tighter on some, looser on others" - and this week Roy is dressing up again to help one of the reception classes with its "Mantle of the Expert" project on world transport (pictured right).
Mantle of the Expert is an approach to learning that is rapidly gaining popularity in primary schools. It combines role-play, collaborative work and problem-solving and involves the children in setting up their own little "companies" to help sort out the problems of their "customers".
Roy has been using this approach in geography and history for the past three years and the predicament confronting Hillside Avenue reception children is that Santa's reindeer are very sick and he needs help in finding a way to deliver his presents all round the world. The educational plan is that this should lead to the children finding out about different modes of transport, which they are now beginning to do, after spending time looking into better medicine for the reindeer.
The task of the elf is to move the project on a little bit. "A special visit from him will let them know how pleased Santa is with what they're doing and remind them that time is running short," says Roy. "The elf will also make it very clear that the reindeer are going to get better. We can't have any deaths in this project - we don't want to put the children off Christmas."