Saturday school: we're lovin' it

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Why would primary children come to class at the weekend? Heather Neill went to Whitmore school, Hackney, to find out

You could spend a week reading the information, exhortations and ideas decorating Caroline King's classroom. "If there's a space, I'll use it,"

she says, adjusting the laminated pages pegged on the washing lines that criss-cross the room.

There are mind maps and lists everywhere: science, numeracy and literacy are well represented, but there is room too for more abstract things such as leadership qualities and the class ethos: "Each day you attend school it is essential that you take some form of knowledge away with you." There's even a suggestions box where students can post their own ideas.

Whitmore school in Hackney, east London, is a typical inner city primary with a wide ethnic mix, including a large number of children for whom Turkish is their first language. Some come in from nursery school with lower than expected attainment for that stage.

This is a Saturday morning and the 25 children in 6K's room are a mix of Years 5 and 6. Numbers are restricted so that Ms King and her colleague Niamh Andrews can work closely with those who come. The supplementary school began last October with children recruited on a first-come-first-served basis after letters were sent out to all Year 5 and 6 parents, and there is a waiting list.

While literacy and numeracy are given prominence on the Saturday syllabus - an hour is devoted to each every week - the third hour provides a chance for innovation. Ms King says she thinks of it as "worldly exposure". She wants the children to be confident, to have aspirations, to find out what possibilities there are in the big world outside school. To this end, she has taken the class to the local bookstore where they choose books, buy and read them.

There have been introductions to French, Chinese and German. The latter class was given, Ms King says, "by a friend I met in the gym". Another acquaintance, encountered at the hairdressers, found herself describing her job in advertising one Saturday morning. "I want them to have a taste, to see that they could have different options."

The day The TES dropped in was unusual as two visitors were coming, and one was a TV star: Casualty paramedic Kwame Kwei-Armah, runner-up in Celebrity Fame Academy, and (perhaps more importantly) playwright. But first, a local councillor, Fran Pearson, took the floor. These sessions are not opportunities for celebrity worship;there is detailed advance preparation so that the students feel they are conducting a proper interview.

Questions in this session ranged from organisational (the Queen's role in the Britain's politics, how the Mayor of London fits into local politics, a civil servant's responsibilities) to very local (How do you cope with people who make your estate feel unsafe? Who is responsible for emptying bins? Why is a favourite youth club closing?) Fran Pearson and her colleagues answered each one carefully, providing information, even promising action. "I love Hackney" badges and bright yellow balloons struck a jollier note to finish with.

Caroline was the performing arts co-ordinator and is now responsible for literacy at Whitmore, but her music degree still comes in handy. A dance and drumming demonstration, part of a recent school talent show, is ready to entertain Kwame at noon and there is a buzz of anticipation as the children go into the hall. But there are some things even the most efficient organiser can't control: by 12.15pm there is no sign of Kwame. He has been held up.

The children do their performance anyway and it is terrific. Afterwards, Ms King tells me that a former pupil now in Year 9 at another school came back to help with the choreography.

By the time Kwame arrives half the children have to go;12 remain, all girls. Despite disappointment, no-one whines. The honoured guest is apologetic, listens carefully and is bowled over by the level of questioning. He explains how he adopted his Ghanaian name, how being famous is a hollow thing unless you are respected for achievement, that he almost went off the rails with the Hackney bad boys but chose not to, how his acting experience fed into his writing, that re-writing is important and so is reading. Afterwards there is a wild balloon tennis session in the hall for the benefit of the photographer, but it is such fun that it could be an idea to offer the opportunity to other guests in future.

For Caroline King, the supplementary sessions provide an opportunity to experiment: "There are so many different learning styles. You can try them out on a Saturday." Science revision mind maps on the wall, showing the links between solids, liquids and gases are one result.

But, best of all, the children seem relaxed, articulate and focused - one regular attender is statemented and needs full-time support on normal school days. In conversation, alongside appreciation of "opportunities" and the chance to "communicate better", they report "fun" and "lots of laughs".


* Discuss the person's career in advance

* Talk about what the class wants to find out

* Talk about possible questions

* The class write down their questions

* On the day students should listen carefully to answers a) follow up if necessary b) avoid asking a question that has already been answered c) adjust planned questions if necessary d) invent impromptu questions

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