Stephanie Northen visits a Suffolk primary school that became a little Mexico to teach literacy
Chillies hang in the playhouse. Sombreros dangle from the ceiling. In the hall, children do the salsa under Victorian beams with their parents. It's Mexico day at Holton St Peter Primary in Suffolk (despite its name, it is a first school that takes children up to the age of nine). Even the teddies on the shelf in the early years classroom are wearing ponchos. Their fuzzy little faces look down on tables covered in concertinas of paper filled with colourful drawing and writing. The inspiration for this artwork is ancient Mexican picture manuscripts, testifying to the creative approach Holton uses to introduce young children to literacy.
Reading and writing are made relevant through being meshed with other topics; the children are as likely to study the history of their village as art from the other side of the Atlantic. Ann Nickerson, the headteacher, says: "When schools were ditching subjects to focus on maths and English, we didn't. We kept all the subjects and found creative ways to teach literacy through them. You don't have to write just because it's supposed to be an English lesson. For example, we do a lot of drama."
Her 88 pupils read exceptionally well and their writing skills were in the top 5 per cent of the country in 2001. Yet Holton is no academic hothouse in a thatched-cottage catchment area, despite being a beacon school. It is full of confident, chatty four to nine-year-olds whose speaking skills are honed by taking an active role in various school-based councils. "We play with literacy orally," says Anne Minton, the senior teacher who takes a mixed reception and key stage 1 class. "I might put up a big sheet of words and say, 'Where's "can"? What does it begin with?' Then one day a child brings in a piece of paper from home on which they have written 'can'. And I think, 'That's it, we're away.'"
Anne Minton works closely with parents. "We tell them they're going to know as much about what their child is doing in this building as we do. We tell them what our expectations are." One of those expectations is homework. A parent of a four-year-old is asked to spend five minutes every night looking at and talking about a picture book. A parent of a five-year-old might help with a few key words or practise a new letter sound once a week.
The children use sheets that Anne Minton pastes in the exercise book that travels between home and school, marked with smiley faces and comments from parents and teachers. The commitment is impressive. "I'm not fierce," she says, "but there are very few weeks when I don't get all my homework folders back."
As soon as a pupil, however young, can recognise three letters together, Anne Minton gives them spellings to learn. The attitude is if they are ready, why stop them? Reading is regarded as a liberation, a route to independent discovery, and books are built into the fabric of children's learning from the start. Stories, poems, non-fiction and dictionaries are all on hand for her early years class; the children use them and take one home every night.
"We celebrate books," says Ann Nickerson. "We talk about them and the children talk to each other about them. I remember one boy saying to another, 'You'll really like this one. It made my cat cry.'" She read all the Harry Potter novels before buying them for Holton so she could discuss them with the children. The school's approach to early reading is not for every foundation stage teacher, but it works for Holton. The pupils read early because "we value it and think it's important and they do, too," says Ann Nickerson. "We also have a praise culture." The school records every book each child reads and every word they learn to spell.
Each child's weekly spelling list is individual - and handwritten by the staff. Also on file is every time a child has read to a teacher (at least four times a week, every week, for five years). This amazingly detailed monitoring of progress is one key to Holton's success. Another is its high expectations. "We expect the children to be able to read and string a sentence together," says Ann Nickerson. "But we make the literacy relevant.
We write for a purpose - and we enjoy ourselves." The Mexico day is an example of this. "Everything in the curriculum is linked, meshed and made exciting," says Anne Minton. "It's not literacy, it's not books, it's the whole lot, the whole picture." And it is the whole child.
In her mixed class, Anne Minton looks beyond age. There are no significant problems of transition from foundation stage to key stage 1. Lessons are planned over two years to avoid repetition. The four, five and six-year-olds cover the same topics, though in different ways, and a child can slot in wherever he or she feels comfortable. "We don't pigeonhole them by age," she says. "The groupings are really flexible. A younger child might want to work up to an older one, and an older one might do best showing off to a younger one." A flexible approach also rules when it comes to initiatives such as the literacy hour. "We make the curriculum fit the child and we don't do much strictly by the book," says Ann Nickerson. "We did more group reading when the literacy hour came in, but we didn't abandon individual reading with a teacher. We use Jolly Phonics and the Oxford Reading Tree, but we take from them what we want. Our curriculum doesn't sit still, you know. It doesn't linger."