Ready to roll

9th September 2005 at 01:00
JoJo is playing up again, no one can get through to Najreen, the school council wants a swimming pool and the cook has just about had enough. School life is never simple, as Wendy Wallace discovered when she spent five terms shadowing staff at a primary in inner-city London. In the first of two extracts from her new book about her experiences there, she chronicles the minor tragedies and triumphs that make up a typical school day

All the new children starting out on their school lives at Edith Neville primary have needs. But some are more apparent than others. Outside at playtime, there is barging on the lightweight plastic bikes. As the children ride the cars and bikes along the "road" through the playground, three-year-old JoJo steps out in front of one after the other, as if he were playing chicken on a motorway. He smiles as he does it and shows no fear. And it is the drivers who seem to get injured, as their high-sided chariots topple over or they take avoiding action and collide with someone else. When one boy falls off his tricycle, JoJo seizes the handlebars and hops on. The original rider screams with rage and frustration; Amy Crowther, the nursery teacher, produces a giant egg-timer - the main tool of conflict resolution in the playground - to demonstrate to JoJo that he must wait his turn for two minutes.

JoJo's behaviour is already ringing alarm bells with staff. "He comes in with his head down, hiding. He screams and shouts, upsets other children, pushes chairs over. It is really hard to know what to do with him," says Amy. JoJo hates other children looking at him, even when he is receiving praise. He has very little confidence in his own abilities; if anyone remarks on one of his paintings he is likely to tear it up and scream that it is "crap". "He just seems to be a very angry little boy," says Amy. "He hurts a lot of children and doesn't seek any adult help. He is used to dealing with things aggressively, and on his own."

The risk is that, for some children, starting school earlier just means that school failure begins earlier. The expansion of nursery places has been accompanied by a trickle of newspaper stories about three-year-olds excluded from nurseries for violent or anti-social behaviour.

Out-of-control three-year-olds, although smaller than their older counterparts, are not necessarily any easier to manage. The challenge for the workers is to make all the children successful.

Najreen is also causing anxiety. Out in the chill winter air, she sticks close to the door of Purple nursery in her unsuitable shoes, her body rigid. She is, in the terminology of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), "new to English". But Najreen doesn't speak in her first language - Bengali - either, prompting staff to wonder what lies behind her silence. So far, the only thing that has encouraged her to vocalise is the nursery nurse from Green nursery (the other nursery class at the school), Laura O'Donoghue, who wears bright and regularly replenished lipstick, who has white, even teeth and a loud voice, whose mouth is constantly moving.

Noticing this, Amy has brought in a lipstick for Najreen. Now Najreen's activity of choice is to stand in front of the mirror in the home corner, the lipstick stuck in her fist like a cudgel, applying it over and around her mouth. Such is her fascination with this activity, staff are wondering whether she has ever seen herself in a mirror before. In less than two weeks at nursery, Najreen's confidence has increased. When not applying lipstick, she wanders round behind Amy, one hand outstretched towards the backs of her legs. When Amy sits down to read a story, Najreen stands next to her, leaning her body against her teacher as if she were a doorframe.

But Najreen often arrives late, or not at all. Her mother, young and gentle, tells staff she has been asleep, or has lost track of time. The team think she may be depressed; she is newly arrived in England and coping alone with three small children.

Before lunch, the children gather on the carpet for story time. The circle joins them as equals around its perimeter. In line with the week's "floating and sinking" topic, Amy reads an incremental tale of animals piling in one after the other on to a small craft. She gets the children to identify what is in the pictures - cow, sheep, goat - as she goes along.

Kelly and some others can identify all the animals by their English names; others know none of them. But they don't have to speak English to understand Amy. The children look up at her, make eye contact, smile.

Najreen sits at her feet, applying lipstick blind, moving the silver tube around her mouth. On the far side of the circle KayLee is crosslegged, holding a rag doll with yellow wool hair on her lap, feeling the lengths of twisted wool with the tips of her fingers, her eyes closed. JoJo, for the second time, throws a large plastic car across the space of the circle, narrowly missing another child. He is lifted out bodily by nursery nurse Rachel, his bare stretched midriff emerging between his hooded top and his jeans.

Seconds later he returns at a run, pursued by Rachel. Amy appears not to notice. She continues her high-energy rendering of the book. "Who sank the boat?" she asks. They're all in the water now, in the story. "Swim, KayLee! Swim, swim, swim," she's calling, as if both their lives depended on it.

"Who sank the boat? Not the cow, not the donkey, not the goat. It was the MOUSE!" Amy and Najreen get on to the tablecloth spread out in the middle of the circle and to a chorus of "row, row, row your boat" they all rock backwards and forwards, singing that life is but a dream. By the end, JoJo is sitting on Rachel's lap, watching.

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After lunch, the older children hold their school council meeting in the parents' room in Purple nursery. They need broadband for the internet, says Year 5's representative, decisively. And a class pet. "We've got a fish in the nursery and what happens in the holidays is that no one wants to take it home," says Amy.

"Everyone in our class wants a swimming pool," complains the Year 4 representative, who has grasped that this puts her in a difficult negotiating position. The children want more games in their classrooms, they say, more trips out of school and better food at lunchtime. Can they go to the seaside twice a month, they ask, instead of once a year. "Can we go somewhere that's not Broadstairs?" says Amin, the chair. "Can we go Brighton?"

Najreen has managed to make her way into the room. She's attached to Amy's calves, looking around the children gathered in untidy poses on the floor, putting her fingers to her lips in a warning gesture. "Shhhhh," she says, in her first communication of the day.

At 3.30, parents materialise by the coat pegs, looking fuller, more convincing versions of themselves than they did in the morning. Kelly's dad comes on his bicycle, in ponytail and a leather jacket, silver ring on one thumb. He greets his daughter's painting with enthusiasm. "Wow, that's beautiful. We can put that on the wall." Other parents are more subdued, holding open their children's coats, staying near the door. Najreen's mum, when she comes, regards her daughter's face without comment or expression.

Rulie, one of the six bilingual early years assistants, speaks to her privately in Bengali, asks her not to send Najreen to school in high heels the next day.

"Goodbye, Najreen," Amy calls enthusiastically, still pumping out energy, giving the impression that the day has been much too short to fit in all the fun she had planned and there will be plenty more tomorrow.

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Headteacher Se n O'Regan's day is a relentless tide of events and demands.

There are two new faces in the staffroom when he takes the morning briefing. One is Najreen's, sitting next to Amy Crowther, in a red velvet party dress, eating Marmite toast. Her mother got confused about the time and brought her in an hour early. The other is the supply teacher who has come to stand in with Year 4, unaware as yet that this is the most difficult class in the school. There is a new face on the noticeboard as well - a snapshot of a middle-aged man on a beach, wearing a straw hat and summer holiday smile. On no account must his granddaughter be surrendered to him, instructs the note underneath. Several children are under threat of abduction by family members.

Se n, on this spring weekday, has been at school since just after eight o'clock. Year 4 will be an anxiety all day; two boys in the class have extremely challenging behaviour and supply teachers, with no relationships with the children, can find it almost impossible to control a highly strung class. One riotous day can set back the whole group for a week afterwards.

After morning briefing, Se n visits Year 4 to remind them of the Golden Rules - Do respect everyone's body and feelings! Don't hurt anyone's body or feelings! - and to ask them to be helpful.

He moves from there to the school kitchen, where the cook, surrounded by giant tins of meatballs and vegetable ravioli, is in crisis. The kitchen is clean and smells of bleach and recent cigarettes. But there is a problem with staff. One member of the team has just gone on maternity leave.

Another fell and broke her arm in two places. Agency staff are useless, says the cook. "I'm doing everything myself and the heat from this kitchen is unbearable." Se n promises to see what he can do.

At 9.30, he has a meeting with a parent. She complains that people in the school are talking about her, after two of her children were picked up by the police in nearby Camden market and driven home in a panda car. "No one on the staff is saying bad things about you," Se n tells her. But the woman is adamant that one of the teaching assistants has been talking about her, saying she is a bad mother. "I am refugee," says the woman. "I don't have English. I know very well that if anything happens to my children, no one can help me." Se n leans forward across the low table, listening, ignoring the knocks that come to the doors on both sides of his office. By the time she stands up to leave half an hour later, the mother is mollified. "I like this school. My children like this school," she says, as she goes.

Another parent is straight in after her, asking for a job, followed by deputy head Helen Griffiths, who wants to discuss a child who has come to school today with an injury to her face, and said that her father hit her.

The man is newly alone with two younger children and two teenagers. "I think he's having a really hard time parenting them," Helen says, perched on the corner of the desk, eating her breakfast of a carton of ready-prepared pineapple. They decide that the class teacher will monitor the child and if there are any more marks or lumps they will make a referral to social services. Meanwhile, Se n suggests Sure Start. "They do have interpreters. They're only up the road." Se n is in charge of child protection at the school.

Se n and Helen move to talking about one of the troubled boys in Year 4; a few days ago, his mother sent him to stay with his father, saying she could not cope with him. Now the father, recently out of prison and unstable himself, has thrown him out and said he wants nothing more to do with him.

The boy has come to school today but is uncooperative and angry. They look sad when they talk about him. "He was doing so well..." Se n says. A soft knock at the door reveals two small girls holding hands. "We can't behave, Se n," says one. He squats down in the doorway, asks them to go and wait in the office of Joan Williamson, the senior administrator. Another child knocks on the door to say there has been an incident in Year 4. Helen departs to sort it out. Se n responds to a polite adult tap on the other door. It is Amy, the nursery teacher, feeling dizzy and sick. He tells her to go home.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Joan Williamson's twin sister Jean Sussex, in charge of the lunchtime supervisors, is waiting outside for a meeting with Se n postponed from last month. They run through recent issues - the shortage of staff in the kitchen, the fact that a child was choking on something at lunchtime earlier in the week and no one spotted it, that there are insufficient forks, that the water fountains are broken and that the playground floods when it rains. They come back to the key issue, the quality of the food served at lunchtime. "It's awful," says Jean, flatly. "That's a hard one to share with Cook," says Se n.

There is good news in the course of the morning. Helen puts her head round the door to say that the Year 4 boy who had an angry outburst in class is now calm and recovering in the parents' room. The new school prospectus has arrived from the printers; it looks wonderful. One of the potential student teacher recruits calls back and arranges to come for interview. But by one o'clock, Se n feels he has not yet begun on the real work of the day.

"Operational management gets in the way of strategic management," he says.

"Part of me feels that peas and carrots are not a good use of my time."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Nursery nurse Laura O'Donoghue picks at a school dinner in the small staffroom off Purple nursery. Salty chips, soft peas and a grey chicken sausage, smeared with ketchup. Laura remembers the meals they used to serve at the school. "Home-made cheese and egg flan. Proper roast dinner every Friday, with roast potatoes. I used to really look forward to Fridays." But that was before school meals nationwide were put out to tender to the lowest bidder. "You are what you eat," pronounces Laura, pushing away the plate.

This is before any changes that may be prompted by TV chef Jamie Oliver's campaign for improved school meals. In Edith Neville's school hall, as in children's canteens around the country, the air is full of the smell of heated fat. Reception and Year 1 children file past large metal trolleys to collect their food. There are vegetables on offer - peas and carrots, a small bowl of green salad and another of coleslaw - but most reach the end of the line with just chips, sausages and ketchup. They hurry back to the folding tables with attached stools and squeeze in, plates tilting.

Jean Sussex patrols the centre of the hall using a whistle to intensify her calls to order. "It's a good dinner today," she says. "Disgusting as it is.

The portion sizes are good. Yesterday, they had five chips each." She begins to chivvy the stragglers; it is almost one o'clock, time for the third and final sitting. The children fold their limbs out from under the low tables, scrape the uneaten food into a bin and escape out of the doors into the playground.

Camden has a borough-wide contract with Scolarest, the school meals arm of multi-national catering giant the Compass Group, which had an operating profit in 2003 of nearly pound;800 million. Before privatisation, seven people were employed to cook and serve lunches at Edith Neville. Now, four people assemble them; the job of head cook has been replaced by that of "unit manager" and working conditions have worsened. Year 6 children make up the labour shortfall; older children set out scores of beakers and serve the salad, bread and ketchup.

The food routinely runs out before everyone has been served. By the time the last of the junior diners reach the front of the queue, the halal sausages are finished, so is the pasta. There is bread on the plate still but it is hard and unappetising. The cutlery has run out too; children are using disposable plastic forks and spoons mixed with metal knives. They accidentally throw away forks with their leavings and the contractors'

budget does not allow for their replacement.

Jean Sussex has a feeling for good food and its place in life. She wishes children could be introduced at school to steamed fish and potatoes, cold chicken and salad, different kinds of vegetables, served in appetising ways. She would like them to sample jelly and ice cream, fruit crumbles and custard. "Why not give them garlic bread to try for a change, or granary rolls? Cold meats? Proper quiche?" She reels off a line of English staples that seem unlikely to make their way back to school canteens. "A lot of children only ever have fast food, or things heated up out of a packet at home. Some don't have a dining-room table, they're used to eating standing up. They need real food and they need variety, so they can try new things."

School meals present a contradiction at the heart of every day in Edith Neville - as they do in schools up and down the country. Teachers and everyone involved in the school try to give the children the consistent message that despite the circumstances of their lives they deserve and should aim for the best life has to offer. But the food they are served at midday tells a different story.

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In the nursery, things are not going well for JoJo. He has reverted to mornings only after a series of angry episodes. Only Laura can manage him.

She has been talking to the children about anger, and children have been reporting their own experiences of it. JoJo has told them about his dad getting angry, and his mum falling down the stairs. Staff must try to read his behaviour for what it tells them about his life out of school.

Pierre's dad hit him outside the nursery, on the pavement, returning him after an access visit, when his son refused to say goodbye to him in the morning. Why couldn't he be happy like the other children? he shouted.

Pierre's mum blamed the nursery staff for letting it happen. She came in the next day and shouted at Laura, threatened to take Pierre out of the nursery. Laura cups Pierre's face in her hands, smiles her 1000-watt smile.

"Beautiful boy," she says. "My beautiful boy."

Next week: making time for Maharun. ) 2005 Wendy Wallace. Some names and details have been changed. Oranges Lemons: life in an inner-city primary school by Wendy Wallace is published by Routledge, pound;12.99. TES readers can get their copy at the special price of pound;9.99. To order go to the TES bookshop at or call 0870 4448633 quoting TESFRI

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