Shake it all about
It's 9am on a grey winter morning - the sort of day in which children stumble to school through semi-darkness and begin lessons half asleep. But at Winterslow CE Primary School most are raring to go, blood coursing through the veins.
Year 6 has just completed its daily Wake and Shake, an on-the-spot exercise routine performed with gusto to The Monkees' "I'm a Believer". This vigorous bout of jumping jack, spinning round, running on the spot and much more works wonders according to headteacher Peter Ward. "We can see they enjoy it and we know it helps concentration in lessons," he says.
"We need exercise to release relevant chemicals in the brain. It's a mix of activities that raises the heart rate. There have been some fantastically improved results in reading since we introduced it."
Schools in the US and New Zealand have long understood the benefits of an early morning workout. Wake and Shake has been a daily feature of life at Winterslow for three years. The school was the willing pilot for a programme that was devised at St Edmund's CE Girls' School and Sports College in Salisbury, and is now spreading around the country.
Geraint Jones, St Edmund's head of PE, estimates that 800 schools have taken it up. "It all started off as something a few of us believed in," he says. "But there wasn't the evidence that early morning PE raised attainment, although teachers felt instinctively that it could.
"We were in touch with the Youth Sport Trust, which said that if we could find evidence, it would spread the word. We did research on breakfast clubs and early morning activity, and then took on the idea, coming up with a booklet of activities. It's continually evolving. We hold seminars and workshops at conferences around the country. I've been invited to sit on a board for the trust so we can make it into a national project."
St Edmund's developed a sports partnership with primary schools across South Wiltshire. It began at Winterslow, with staff meetings attended by St Edmund's teachers. They led the first sessions so that Winterslow teachers could get a feel for what would work.
Peter Ward, whose background is in PE, embraces Wake and Shake. Year 6 pupils are old hands at it, expelling energy in co-ordinated fashion, working well within a tight space for about 10 minutes. Reception class children, four and five-year-olds, moving to Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl", are more tentative, but most have got the hang of it.
The routines vary and some are more strenuous than others. Exercise doesn't always take place in class - sometimes there are laps of the playground instead. Then there is "brain gym" where, for instance, children draw a number eight in the air with their finger. The aim here is to get both sides of the brain working.
Other elements can include one child moving their fingers, while a partner follows the sequence. Children also write their names in the air. "We've made many adaptations - teachers introduce new things to keep it fresh,"
says Peter. "The children here are very fit. Wake and Shake is part of the fabric of the school. We also do two hours of PE a week, which the Government is aiming for."
In 2003, research carried out by St Edmund's assessed how this activity affected the reading of sample groups at Winterslow. The study recorded dramatic improvements following three months of Wake and Shake. The reading age of one pupil with severe learning difficulties is said to have increased by 52 months. In a control group of 24 low-achieving key stage 2 children, better than expected progress was made by 75 per cent in reading, 38 per cent in maths.
Winterslow excels at sport through a combination of its fitness culture and Peter's belief in competition. In a mini-marathon attracting a field of 300 pupils from south Wiltshire, split by age, the school won three-quarters of the races.
Steph, Winterslow's head girl, who led Year 6 through their routine, says Wake and Shake refreshes her for the day: "You're ready for it and I feel we can concentrate more."
Alice, who plays hockey, tag rugby and football, and also swims for Salisbury, says: "Before you come into school you feel really tired. It helps us because then you're not feeling sleepy."
When I visited, Year 6 was unanimously in favour of going through the routine twice. They finished breathless, but seemingly fit for whatever would come their way.
"I didn't need any persuading about doing this," says Peter. "We're a dynamic school, always happy to try new things. If the knock-on effect is that we get better results, that's a bonus, but we don't do it for that."