Independence is minutes away

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Elaine Williams visits the infants school that stars in the Government's literacy video

Every child is special and every day is important." Whiteheath infants school in Ruislip might add "and not a moment is lost" to these commendable words from its mission statement. Ann Hewett, Whiteheath's headteacher, runs her school with almost military precision in order to ensure that all children reach their full potential in reading and writing before leaving for the junior school up the road.

She is a stickler for building up children's self-esteem and their achieving success. This is reflected in last year's key stage 1 national curriculum test results - 93 per cent reached level two or above in reading and 95 per cent attained that in writing. This is despite the fact that children in the west London borough of Hill-ingdon do not start school until five.

In the seven years that Mrs Hewett has been head, Whiteheath has increased its intake from 64 a year to a 90-strong threeform entry and is now oversubscribed.

Moreover, the school is featured in a government video to promote the literacy hour, piloted by the National Literacy Project and to be introduced into all schools by next September.

"We only have four hours of teaching a day and we can't afford to mess about," she says. "Reading and writing have to be the priority. If children cannot read then they can achieve their potential in nothing else, whether it be geography, maths or science.

"But we are not into cramming verbs and nouns into five-year-olds. We work much more imaginatively."

Mrs Hewett is blessed with Jill Kieran, her deputy and a member of the Government's standards task force, as English co-ordinator. Mrs Kieran is concerned first and foremost that children should regard reading as special and pleasurable and she takes every possible step to make books in the school attractive.

She is proud of her special books areas, beautifully decorated and immaculately kept, which are always accessible to pupils. One of these cosy areas, tucked away off a corridor, with carpets, cushions and chairs, is reserved for displaying new stock from the Hillingdon Schools Library Service or purchased from the school's budget or parent-teacher association funds. She constantly sifts through what the library service makes available and new publications in the shops.

On the day I visited Whiteheath, this area was filled with poetry books and decorated with colourful artefacts, textiles and saris from India to fit in with pupils' work on the Hindu festival Diwali. "We put in artefacts that the children would not normally see," says Mrs Kieran. "We have few children in this part of Hillingdon from other countries so we have to work hard in providing experience of other cultures."

Whiteheath uses the Oxford Reading Tree for its core texts in teaching reading, and a second book area features shelves at child level with the Reading Tree arranged in sequence through the stages. "We want children to be able to come and collect books for themselves as directed by their teachers. It is crucial to promote independence in reading as much as possible," says Mrs Kieran.

The key texts are arranged above. These are classics and outstanding contemporary books which Mrs Kieran believes the children "must meet", and include Longfellow's Hiawatha's Childhood, Enchantment in the Garden by Shirley Hughes, Noah's Ark by Jane Ray and Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell. They are used by teachers for stories at the end of the day or as a basis for teaching during literacy time. Children might study points of grammar in the text or they might write their own stories from it.

The library, Mrs Kieran's joy, is comfortable, inviting, tidy and well stocked. Books are categorised loosely under titles in a way that is accessible to pupils. Larger hardback books are displayed for their attractive covers, including a range from Dorling Kindersley, bought by the families of pupils who have left the school.

Mrs Kieran has established a self-issuing system - pupils simply write their name and the title of the book into a library register - which is itself a clear indication of literacy proficiency. "They can take out anything they like," says Mrs Kieran, "They start using the library independently when they get to stage 3 of the Oxford Reading Tree. It's a real privilege." Library books can be taken home, as well as Oxford Reading Tree readers.

Parents are invited to reading policy evenings and are told that although their child might not be able to read all of a library book, going through the book themselves or sharing it with their parents is a valid reading experience.

Reading targets are set with the parents every term. The school asks parents not simply to hear a child read but to talk about the characters in the story, to empathise with them and to back this up with simple writing practice, such as making shopping lists. "We are not asking parents to teach," says Mrs Kieran. "We are saying, 'This is how we teach and this is what you can do at home.' We value this partnership very highly."

The Oxford Reading Tree is used for all the school's formal reading requirements, apart from a "tiny minority" of children with particular special needs. "We don't feel the need for anything else," says Mrs Hewett. "It uses a whole variety of ways of meeting readers' needs and extending their understanding. We have recently introduced the Reading Tree non-fiction series, particularly for motivating boys."

Whiteheath spends a total of seven and a half hours a week on literacy work, which includes three literacy mornings. These mornings are tightly structured, following a set pattern and method. At the beginning children are told what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it. "We use directly focused teaching methods with clear learning intentions," says Mrs Kieran.

Specific points are made from the key texts, which are changed weekly. The week I visited, Mrs Kieran's pupils were learning about apostrophes from Handra's Surprise by Eileen Brown.

During literacy mornings pupils in each class are divided into five groups and move through five different activities: guided reading from the Reading Tree by ability group; shared reading from a story tape; working from the key text; simple writing exercises, such as composing a get well card; and spelling with the aid of consonant, vowel and consonant wordpicture cards.

At the end of each activity Mrs Kieran visits every group. "In this way I can make valid teaching points," she says.

"At the end of the morning I draw all of this together and I say, 'This is what we have done, this is what we can spell, this is how we use apostrophes', and so on."

The guided reading sessions are highly structured. All the children in each group work with the same text. Mrs Kieran explains: "I have direct intentions every time we sit down together with the books, ranging from decoding the text to looking at phonemes, to looking at how a word is made, focusing on key words or studying how the writer structures the story."

Apart from literacy mornings, the school spends two sessions a week on writing, working with the Charles Cripps scheme (published by LDA), using phonics to lead into joined up writing which also feeds into the reading work.

Mrs Hewett insists on detailed schemes of work and that staff operate collaboratively. Mrs Kieran also requires staff to track children's development in similar detail. For example, Tiffany, in Year 1, had been writing her own version of The Pig in the Pond, writing the word "sblasht" (splashed) and "lookd" and the phrase "hoter and hoter". "For Tiffany I would make a note that in the next guided reading session she is ready to learn about 'tt' and 'ed'," says Mrs Kieran.

Mrs Hewett acknowledges that in all of this there has to be room for spontaneity. "What do you do on those mornings when the children are excited about cobwebs? You have to give time for the cobwebs. But the reading time cannot be lost. It just has to be made up at a later stage."

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