Passions harnessed for learning

7th February 1997 at 00:00
It's slightly rickety and held together with lashings of tape. But it is recognisably a wooden model of the three-wheeled bicycle (complete with trailer) on which a small boy is brought to nursery school each day, and it just happens to be his obsession at the moment.

So Nigel makes models of the bicycle. He paints it, draws it, writes about it. And staff at the Bognor Regis Nursery School encourage his interest, because through it he can work through the different skills and developments required by the national curriculum with real interest and passion.

The current passions of all 88 three and four-year-olds at the nursery are as important as the curriculum for tailoring their learning. Parents are encouraged to note their child's development: there are two staff meetings a week (three for teachers) to discuss what individual pupils are doing and how they can be individually stretched. This meticulous record-keeping drew particular praise from the Office for Standards in Education team, whose glowing report has led to the nursery being commended in the chief inspector's annual awards.

Headteacher Sian Rees Jones said: "Looking at the areas in which the children are confident or not confident helps us to plan their learning and are a good way of encouraging them. If a child is very interested in organising the garage, we might set up a writing area there to encourage them to get into that area of the curriculum. If the children are doing something for a purpose it is meaningful for them."

The aim is that pupils will become happy, confident, self-motivated and self-reliant learners. "We want them to have a mastery attitude to learning. We want them to develop a variety of different styles to approaching a problem and the perseverance to keep going. I think children need to learn how to be confident learners and I hope that is something which will stay with them, " said Miss Rees Jones.

She recalled watching one little boy painstakingly constructing an electrical circuit with fiddly little crocodile clips to run a propeller. "He was leaping from one foot to the other saying 'I've made air!'."

One of the great strengths of the school is its rather unusual premises. The nursery, which has just celebrated its 50th birthday, occupies an enormous double-fronted Edwardian house with an equally enormous garden.

Children are based either upstairs or downstairs: both floors have areas dedicated to creative work and sand, music, technology, models and cookery, music, and books.

Unusually, the garden also has all these facilities. "There is no excuse for parents to say their child plays in the garden all day - all the opportunities are there," said deputy head Sheena Smart.

Children choose their activities and whether they want to do them inside or outside: it says a great deal for the success of the system that on a grey, cold, damp morning, a great many pupils were playing purposefully outside. Inside as well, it is easy to see - and hear, and smell - why Bognor Regis so impressed the registered inspector. The house is full of purposefully occupied children who are playing, learning and questioning companiably, with curiosity and without squabbles. Groups of children are making fairy cakes, measuring out and describing ingredients, with the smell of baking everywhere.

Sound being the theme of the term, there is a little boy guessing animal noises from a tape and children singing and dancing. In the hall, an old-fashioned clock ticks loudly as part of a display.

The other great strength of the school, as the inspector noted, is visionary leadership and exceptionally hardworking staff. Around a third of pupils are referred with special needs. Miss Rees Jones said one little girl was profoundly deaf, could only communicate by gesture with staff and so found nursery frightening. "Four of the staff went to evening classes to learn British Sign Language. I think that's special," she said.

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