(Photograph) - Emma Hodgson, 7, is reaching across with her right hand to pluck coloured clothes pegs off her left cardigan shoulder as fast as nursery nurse Paula Crook can fix them there. And laughing with cheeky pleasure. Smacking her lips in kisses, a newly-learned gesture, she flings her arms around Paula, nuzzles her cheek and nips it. "What's your name?" asks Paula, distractingly. "Emma," says Emma, adding, as she meets Paula's gaze resting on the pegs, "Again, again."
When Emma was three she was diagnosed with leukodystrophy, a disease in which the white matter in the brain does not grow properly. Doctors predicted she would neither walk nor talk. She stared inertly, never initiating social interaction. Her mother wheeled her in her pram to the nursery at Eccleston Mere primary school in St Helen's, where often she lay on the carpet and screamed.
Eccleston Mere has drawn on long-established experience and resources rare in a mainstream local primary school to support Emma: she uses its multi-sensory room, its visiting music, speech, physical and behavioural therapists. But with Emma's parents, the school also sought and found a neurological exercise programme which combines physical and mental co-ordination exercises: crawling, sewing, cross-body activity (hence the pegs), flashcards annually retailored to fit Emma.
Today, disapplied from the national curriculum, Emma works in a corner of the Year 3 classroom on this programme with Paula all day, breaking off to do art, music and PE with her own class and dance with Year 1 and Year 2.
When dancing ends she sits down, furious, refusing to move. She hates being told off or interrupted, loves to communicate with her 10 words, several acquired from Oxford's Reading Tree scheme. "Oh no," she quotes, slapping her forehead in delighted greeting as Eccleston Mere head Philip Friend walks past. "Oh no," he groans, grinning, in reply.
Photograph by CHRIS THOMOND