Red jelly day

9th September 2005 at 01:00
A hum of excitement fills the hall, rising from the lines of children sitting cross-legged on the floor. Teachers sit at the ends of the rows, on chairs, quelling noise with their eyes. The light filters in sideways from the high windows, illuminating the red hearts, circles and crosses painted on the children's cheeks and foreheads. It is Red Nose Day assembly and the whole school is gathered together.

All the families have been invited, but only around 15 people have come. A group of Muslim men cluster together on chairs near the front; at the back, a line of mothers, some with babies in their arms, survey the tops of the heads of nearly 250 Edith Neville children.

As organiser of the event, Amy Crowther leads Purple nursery's "S Club 8" group to the front of the hall to begin the assembly. Amy's blonde hair is a mass of red pigtails, their frivolity contradicting the tired expression on her face. Music booms from a cassette player at the back and the children look momentarily bewildered as they gaze out over the mass of faces, but Amy wills them through their routine - standing in front of them to demonstrate the hand-clapping, legshaking, hip-rolling sequence they have practised. Older children begin to clap along with the rhythm.

Afterwards, Maharun comes to the front. Her long black hair is twisted into upstanding, red-threaded plaits and her face, characteristically alert, tilts to the ceiling. Eight-year-old Maharun is blind; she was born without eyes. Her learning assistant, who has worked with her since nursery, kneels behind her holding her hips lightly to steady her as Maharun sways from side to side and sings a Craig David song, her voice gathering strength as she goes along. "You might need somebody too," she finishes. The children applaud wildly and one of the fathers springs off his chair to pat her on the shoulder.

The assembly demonstrates the cultural chasms children must bridge in their lives. Some have dressed up for the day at home; they have sprayed their hair, are wearing red T-shirts and trousers and ribbons. Others are in their everyday clothes, which for Muslim girls are trousers, topped by dresses and cardigans, a modest, practical look at odds with the tweenie sexuality displayed by some of the non-Muslim girls.

Children from the older years are confident in public, used to performing in front of the school since they were small. Year 4 do their own version of Pop Idol, with brio. Individual children come up and tell jokes - "Why do camels make good teachers? Because they've always got the hump" - and groups of boys display their talent for rap. Girls sing with enthusiasm, mainly in groups.

A Year 6 girl dressed up in the red, embroidered costume and gold jewellery of a bride wins the first draw of the raffle; her prize is a morning helping the school keeper. Se n drapes his jacket round the narrow shoulders of the boy who wins the chance to be "Se n for a day," to widespread laughter from adults and children. When a child from Year 4 wins the chance to stick deputy head Helen Griffiths's feet in jelly, the children erupt. Helen displays her gift for performance, peeling off her boots like a pantomime dame and plunging her winter-white feet into a large tray of red jelly. The children scream their delight as the jelly envelops Helen's ankles, drips from her toes. The day concludes with a cake sale in the same hall; staff and children have raised pound;400 for Comic Relief.

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