Silly season

29th July 2011 at 01:00
Mucking about often drives primary teachers to distraction, but injecting fun into the learning experience can have surprising results, writes Meabh Ritchie

Near the front of the assembly hall in this small primary school is a makeshift security arch - the kind normally seen at airports. A sign reads, "No fun, no entry", and as children's author Jeremy Strong passes through the arch, two 10-year-old security guards in sunglasses and black suits shout that they are "scanning for fun".

Luckily, Mr Strong passes the test. The 100-plus pupils in front of him collapse into giggles while watching his comedy walk through the arch, switching between giant steps and tiptoes. The hall echoes with the sound of their laughter and the music from the five-strong pupil band.

Pupils and teachers have made a special effort for the "silly ceremony" and are all wearing hand-crafted hats: one child made a hat out of Lego, another sports a headpiece full of foliage, and some are wearing their parents' pants on their head.

Aldborough Primary School in rural north Norfolk has been awarded the title of funniest school in Britain and Mr Strong is there to present staff and pupils with their prize. More than 400 schools took part in the competition, each submitting a poster showing the fun side of their school, but Aldborough Primary was the clear winner.

Each of its 131 pupils drew a tiny 2cm drawing of themselves and these were stuck on to a 3D interactive poster, along with sketches of their favourite funny sides of school life, including the bug-house and the forest den and being able to wear their own uniform. Tracey, the school cook, also plays a vital role in the school's fun factor and gets a drawing and a mention on the poster: "Tracey always knows what funky pudding to put with which main course. Don't tell anyone, and we mean anyone, about our illegal flapjacks, or we could get into trouble if the Government finds out."

Creating the poster gave teachers an insight into what pupils really enjoyed about school and some responses were a surprise, including pupils' appreciation for being allowed to sit on the grass outside to eat their lunch on sunny days. Another big hit was the changing artwork and displays. "One day we came in and the whole school was like an airport," says Charlotte, aged 10. "If something comes down, something always goes back up and then it feels like it hasn't even happened."

Since retiring from teaching in 1991, Mr Strong has been touring schools, reading extracts from his books and encouraging pupils to read and write. He launched his Campaign for Fun and the competition to find the funniest school in the UK in January after seeing how learning can be transformed if pupils are relaxed and enjoying themselves. "I started visiting schools as a writer and began to notice that the schools which seemed to be achieving exciting and remarkable things were the ones where the children were bubbling over because they enjoyed being taught," he says.

Teachers are, of course, focused on targets and planning, and having fun doesn't often top the agenda. And silliness is infectious, especially with primary pupils, so it can be hard to contain once let loose. But Aldborough Primary head Tina Casburn says she has always encouraged a "free-spirited ethos". "We encourage lots of creativity and don't impose any behaviour rules so that it's more about self-discipline," she says.

The school structure is very free-flowing: teachers follow a flexi- curriculum and have two age groups in each of five classes. The school grounds back on to rugged countryside and include a pond and a small patch of woodland where they are encouraged to play during their breaks. On the day of the prize-giving, the Year 5 teaching assistant sets up five paper plates of baked beans at the back of the hall. This is not a prop for the silly ceremony, but a tasting survey to test which brand of beans is the nicest, and which presents best value for money, as part of a wider maths project.

Despite the relaxed air, high standards are paramount. "We have high expectations and ask that they behave appropriately, and largely the kids stick to that," says Mrs Casburn. "The relationship between the teacher and the pupil is also crucial. If you have that, you can inject the fun."

Having fun with pupils is not about letting go of control; on the contrary, it relies on a firm grasp of behaviour management, says Susan McMaster, Year 5 teacher at Woodford Green Preparatory School, Essex, whose pupils also took part in the Campaign for Fun and entered the competition. "When you start teaching, it's more difficult. You think, `I've got to do this and got to do that. He's standing up when he should be sitting down.' I think you're a bit more conscious of behaviour," she says. "But once you've been teaching for a while, you have your strategies, the class have learnt how far they can go with you. Having fun is one way of reaching some children."

At Aldborough Primary children not only enjoy day-to-day school life, but also have high levels of achievement. In recent years, the school's Sats results have been well above the national average and it is among the top schools in Norfolk. A high proportion of pupils are at level 4, which Mrs Casburn attributes to placing reading at the core of the curriculum. On Wednesdays, the school is split into some 30 reading groups, each led by a parent or teacher, to read a novel. There is also a weekly reading assembly in which teachers read picture books aloud. "They're usually completely glossed over, but older children love them as well," says the head.

The school is assisted in its reading drive by a local bookshop, which runs the north Norfolk children's book group and brings celebrated authors to children in the area. Based in the middle of a field, the bookshop organises authors' visits to schools, some of which are in very rural areas and have only 60 or so pupils. "It makes the children realise that authors are alive and kicking," says the bookshop owner Tom Hunt.

Improving literacy levels has long been on the national agenda as a significant proportion of children - and especially boys - fail to reach a good standard of reading and writing by the time they leave primary school. But for teachers and authors, humour seems to be a tried and tested route to engaging young people.

"The stories I wrote came out of what I learned from teaching," says Mr Strong. "I was working with quite young pupils, seven and eight-year-olds, but just when they were becoming independent readers there was hardly anything for them. So I began writing the kind of stories that I thought they would enjoy and make them laugh. I wanted them to be easy to read, but at the same time extend their reading skills."

For authors like Jeremy Strong and Andy Stanton, who have tapped into children's silly side, their books have elevated them to celebrity status in the eyes of their devoted readers. And nowhere more so than here at Aldborough Primary, where children delight in showing Mr Strong their favourite places around the school and asking crucial questions such as, "In the morning, do you put on your boxers or your socks first?" and "Do you stroke your cat backwards?"

"In some ways, I'm trying to reach those children who aren't interested in reading and writing, because they are the ones who need the most help," says Mr Strong. "But if you can open the door now, it will pay dividends. And if you can make school a fun place to be, it's only going to help as well."

With that, the author is dragged away by pupils keen to show him the forest den and the school's biggest pine cone. He strides off across the field like the Pied Piper, with a trail of young children following eagerly in his wake.

For more about Jeremy Strong's Campaign for Fun, go to


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