Hugs in the system

20th June 1997 at 01:00
A focus on literacy and cuddles, and having the courage to bypass the national curriculum have produced extraordinary results at Birmingham's Nelson Mandela School, writes Diane Hofkins

The head and deputy of the Nelson Mandela Community Primary School in Birmingham say theirs is a "cuddly school". There is lots of hugging, ostentatious celebration of children's steps forward and hecticly creative displays in all the public spaces.

But before anyone gets the idea that the Sparkbrook school is a place of woolly progressivism of the type deplored by Prince Charles this week, it must be stressed that the main point of it all is to promote literacy and numeracy. This school is convinced that helping its 520 pupils learn to read is its key responsibility - so much so that its teachers unashamedly admit that they don't cover the full national curriculum.

Early on, headteacher Frieda Billingham wrote to tell the National Curriculum Council and the local education authority about this heresy - and nothing happened. She and deputy Sue Wilks couldn't understand why other schools were afraid to do this, even though they believed it was right.

The pair cheerfully describe themselves as arrogant. They know what they're doing, and they keep working to improve it. (In last year's national curriculum tests, 63 per cent of 11 year-olds achieved government targets in English and 91 per cent in maths). They teach the technicalities of reading quite explicitly to their largely Pakistani population, tie the skills of reading and writing together, and surround the children with language, which is all over the walls. The hall, for instance, is adorned with PE-related words, artistically presented to illustrate their meanings.

In appointing teachers, Mrs Billingham says she gravitates toward those who are artistic, who are still learners themselves, and who are at home with language. "Sue and I say we are always looking for teachers with oomph," she says. Mrs Billingham opened Nelson Mandela 10 years ago, and has been there ever since, apart from a stint as a local education authority adviser. "I had a burning ambition to create a school my own children would want to go to," she says.

So the secret of the school's success is no surprise: high expectations. "If we don't have high expectations for those children, who's going to?" She and Mrs Wilks do not believe there are endless ways to achieve reading success. There are particular things that work. "I would contend that there is no difference between the needs of Nelson Mandela and those of the children in leafy Sutton Coldfield," says Mrs Billingham.

They think the government's National Literacy Project, seen as too rigid by some, has got the right principles when it comes to structured, focused teaching, but its expectations are too low. The goal of 45 sight vocabulary words at the end of reception would not set high enough standards, says Mrs Wilks. "We count the words they know," she says. "We actually make it a big thing. We have developed a particular structure that leads them into reading. " Counting the number of words children know not only provides rigour but "does your assessment for you". They reckon a child should know 70 to 100 by the end of reception. "A child coming out of reception with 40 words is actually showing us that they're not retaining much," says Mrs Billingham.

The approach is highly motivational and teachers go over the top to celebrate success. Children are stood on the table or even cuddled. When a child stands up and says, "Yes! I'm a reader", they are on the way. The head and deputy believe demanding standards from the start mean the children have a solid foundation for the tough subject requirements of key stage 2. Children who are ready may be started off on Nelson Mandela's Step on to Reading scheme in the nursery. This introduction to literacy teaches children explicitly about the structure of language, with sentence and word building, an emphasis on patterns in language, counting of letters and words. The national curriculum begins in reception, even though this is not strictly required. There is a rich curriculum, but everything is taught through literacy.

Since the appointment of Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's visionary chief education officer, as co-vice chair of David Blunkett's standards task force, all eyes are turning to Birmingham to look for a model. But Nelson Mandela's innovation and iconoclasm preceded the Brighouse effect. Their quarrel with Professor Brighouse, whom Mrs Billingham and Mrs Wilks admire for supporting and inspiring teachers, is that he is unwilling to put his weight behind particular methods. "I think I would like people like Tim to say, 'This works, not just in that school, but because it's educationally sound",' says Mrs Billingham. "I would like a much more philosophical debate about what works."

Nelson Mandela is also unusual in relishing the national curriculum tests. Unlike other schools, where teachers complain that the demands are unsuitable, too hard or that the tests tell them nothing, Mrs Billingham believes that by becoming progressively harder, they are raising standards. "After last year's key stage 2 SATs we realised that our levels of questioning were not good enough. We had to change our tack - and not just in Year 6." Teachers realised they had not prepared the children well enough for the comprehension test when they saw their answers. The questions had required inference and "reading around" the text. "When our Year 6 children said the reading SAT was hard, I said, 'Yes, it's hard, but it's not your problem, it's my problem. I haven't taught you well enough for you to tackle that problem.' " Some would disparagingly call it teaching to the tests, but at Nelson Mandela they see it differently. Mrs Wilks says, "When the SATs come each year, there's a relish: what will the challenge be this year?" In their first year of tests for six- to seven year-olds, 1991, the challenge was full stops and capital letters. "Having said, okay, it's ridiculous, then we found that the children could do it. It's not ridiculous at all."

Inspection, on the other hand, has not helped Nelson Mandela. The OFSTED team, they feel, did not understand the school, and so gave it a decent but lacklustre report. "They weren't cuddly people," says Mrs Billingham.

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