Thanks for the memories

Karen Gold visits a primary school which nurtures its pupils and their talents long after they've moved on

This school holds the most memories I have ever had in one building. They are memories of a lifetime. You can hold them forever."

Megan, 12, is talking with a group of old friends, now all scattered to different secondaries, about the primary school where they spent seven formative years. Gathered around a small corridor table, the moments etched on their minds come bursting out. None of them has anything much to do with lessons.

"I remember sitting out here sulking"; "I remember doing my Sats out here because I couldn't concentrate"; "I remember you crying your eyes out in reception"; "I remember having Christmas cracker hats. And a long curly wig when I was Annie".

What do children take away with them from primary school? What comes out when they go back? And why would they want to return?

On the Arbury council estate in drab north Cambridge, 30 children from Year 3 to Year 11, ages ranging from eight to 16, are rehearsing a celebration performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to mark 50 years since the founding of their local primary school. All are pupils from Arbury primary, either former or current. Week by week, they return, some of them for five years, to an after-school theatre group, founded by the school's performing arts co-ordinator, Lesley Ford, in 2001, when she saw there was too much talent to lose.

"It was an outstanding year," she says. "But also I was concerned about continuity into secondary school. These kids had been playing Fagin and Romeo, but now because they were competing for parts with Year 9s, they weren't even getting second spear carrier from the left. I didn't want them to go off and find football or boys and be lost to the arts forever."

It's easy for adults and children, locked into mundane routines of punctuation and registers, to forget what a huge emotional pull the primary years have on a child. This is the first substantial, long-term community they experience outside the family. Its happenings and players, good and bad, live on in the mind. In a relatively insular and impoverished area such as Arbury, where even the city centre, let alone the university, seem far far away, the identification of the primary school with the community, as well as being a community, is particularly strong. Ask former pupils why they come back, and the answers are all about people - seeing old friends, seeing staff - and about shared memories. They are revisiting a common past. For Year 7s that past is sometimes painfully close. "It's like this school is my house. I know where everything is," says Megan. "I still get lost in secondary. Here the teachers know you, and you know what they think of you and if they like you. I miss it."

Mark, now in Year 11, says: "Secondary school isn't the same as this. After a while you get used to it."

That sense of belonging extends beyond actual and apparent environmental alterations. The children pick up quickly on new toilets, more computers.

They know some of the change they see is subjective. "Everything here seems to have shrunk. The radiators, the lights. The ceiling seems closer to the ground," says Jonty, 13.

"And," adds Jessica, 12, "it seems empty because we're not here."

"Coming here reminds me of my roots," says Richard, 16. "As time goes on, I'm here more and more for the drama. But occasionally you see a photo on the wall and you think that's always been here, and you get a flashback.

Then you realise it's part of why you are here."

As the oldest students keep coming back, so the younger ones see them as role models: they see a continuous community can be sustained, without an unnatural break at the age of 11. They also see a potentially different, more collegiate relationship with adults: backing up Mrs Ford is a host of school staff who help direct, costume and organise productions. Not everybody would want such continuity, the children acknowledge. "Some of my friends said to me, why do you want to do that? You've left that school forever," says Vicki, 13. "They think I should have moved on."

Naughty boys, rougher kids: they are the categories these community-minded individuals expect would exclude themselves. They are only partly right, says Mrs Ford. "We had a boy come back to see us who would have been in Year 11 now if he'd stayed at school. He said 'Miss, you still have Jessica and Mark coming here don't you?' I said 'I wish you could have stayed together at secondary school'. He said 'Yes, but they split us up miss, and put a lot of pricks with us, and that's where I started to go wrong'.

"I wish I could have held on to more. But you do what you can, and what you want to. You have to say fine, have a nice life. Then you have to let go."

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