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A world built for the little people

It's great to be five if your teacher dares to be different, says Sara Bubb

Spending the day in the reception unit at St John's Roman Catholic first school in Norwich, I felt like Gulliver in a world designed for four and five-year-olds.

Nooks and crannies are formed by furniture and large rolls of corrugated paper, with child height doors and windows. Every inch is used imaginatively to inspire purposeful play and children's emergent writing is on signs and displays - everywhere.

The structure of the jobs board, with its numerous manager roles, encourages children to be independent and take responsibility from an early stage.

In fact, it feels as though the children are running the place with the adults just there to help. For instance, Daniel calls the register - which he's able to do perfectly well because it is designed for what his inspirational teacher, Shelagh Swallow, refers to as "little people". There is a picture and number next to each name. One child was absent from the class of 29 so everyone helps Daniel work out that 28 are present, and to get the numerals round the right way.

Children having hot dinners only sit down when they have been touched and counted by Daniel. There are eight, so the class uses the number line to work out that 20 are having packed lunches.

Feeling important, Daniel takes the sheet to the secretary with everyone marked off and the numerals 28, 8 and 20 written in the right boxes. Yes, it took a long time, but it was worth it. Every last drop of learning was squeezed out of this everyday activity.

It is rare to find a teacher openly espousing educational theory, but what is striking about reception teacher Shelagh Swallow is how grounded her practice is. It is based on solid principles informed by theory. The ideas of professors such as Janet Moyles, Lillian Katz and Ferre Laevers confirmed her own and have given her the confidence to become even more child-centred, bucking the national trend.

Together with the other reception teacher, Mary Fisher, and assistants Jackie Ferry and Theresa Richards, Shelagh covers all the areas of learning through motivating topics, with in-built opportunities for real problem-solving. Planning follows children's interests so that a kernel of an idea blossoms into a theme.

The children are doing a topic on dogs and they already know more than me.

They have learned about care and training from dog owners who brought in a labrador and a puppy. They have watched a video of Crufts and a vet is coming soon.

Crouching down to get through another child-sized doorway - a small entrance labelled "dogs' home" - I see about 25 toy dogs in kennels made from decorated shoe boxes. Every kennel has a number, to reinforce numeral recognition and ordering, and a label with the dog's name.

All the dogs' names - Ben, Liz, Bob - are CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words to help with phonic knowledge. "Spot" bears witness to those lovely consonant blends.

The children who work in the dogs' home have to register all new arrivals.

They use classification skills when choosing their dog. So, for instance, Spot is a small dog, is eight unifix cubes high, is a girl dog, is happy and likes short walks. They make dog tags and labels for their kennels.

The lost dog wardens practise their positional language as they look under things for missing animals that have been strategically hidden. Dog training reinforces aspects of road safety, personal and social development and literacy and numeracy skills.

Everyone wanted to tell me about the dog show. The reception team handed over as much of the organisation to the children as possible. They made posters, tickets, programmes and wrote letters inviting parents to the show. They responded to ticket requests and gave out tickets that matched the numbered chairs.

There were several events in the show: a sheep dog trial, toy dog parade, police dog demonstration and obstacle race. Children chose which role they wanted to take. They had to add up scores and put them in order.

Aren't parents up in arms about all this play? No, they say, Shelagh gives their children the best possible start. She takes care to explain her philosophy to parents. Displays are labelled with this important audience in mind too.

Ah, but what about the head, the local education authority, the Office for Standards in Education? Kim Payne, the head, is utterly convinced that Shelagh's approach works and inspectors are on side too.

After a year of such fun in reception, children are not only reading, writing and working with numbers confidently but they have open and inquiring minds, high self-esteem, great confidence as learners and sophisticated social interaction skills.

This reception unit demonstrates that children can learn without published worksheets, exercise books and formal lessons. Teachers should have the courage of their convictions to teach in radical and inspirational ways.

Sara Bubb works at the Institute of Education, University of London. Her latest book is Leading and Managing Continuing Professional Development (written with Peter Earley) and is published by Paul Chapman, priced pound;18.99

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