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Fertile ground- Gillingham Primary School

Gillingham Primary School is laying the foundations for literacy in North Dorset, as Joël Lacey discovered

Introducing Bertie: a ‘classroom pet’ who helps pupils to communicate by recounting his adventures at their homes

Introducing Bertie: a ‘classroom pet’ who helps pupils to communicate by recounting his adventures at their homes

It may seem an obvious thing to say, but, without literacy, the rest of a child’s education is much, much harder. At Gillingham Primary School, the focus on the children being able to read and to write permeates the school’s whole being – not least because it is a centre for helping children across the district overcome any difficulties they may have reading and writing. Head teacher, Catharine Jessiman, who has just celebrated her second anniversary at the school, is incredibly proud both of what her pupils are achieving, and how members of her staff are going about helping them, by a combination of ‘direct’ teaching, cross-curricular learning, parent involvement and, probably most importantly of all, making learning fun.

As you walk around the school there are examples of children’s work adorning the walls. There is nothing novel there, perhaps, but after a request from the children themselves, the walls are not merely covered in paintings and collages, but also in the written work that the children have produced. It is a small thing to give a piece of writing the same status of an artwork in terms of its physical display, but it represents a shift in how writing is now more highly valued by the school and the children.

There is, of course, no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to improving literacy, but what there is at Gillingham Primary School is an overarching philosophy that literacy will be at the heart of everything. So, for example, in year one (what was second year infants in old money), there is cross-curricular learning in maths and literacy. There is also cross-fertilisation between the years. When a writing den was set-up for the reception class, the older children saw it and wanted to have one themselves. When a writing club was set-up for the Key Stage 1 pupils, it was, seemingly against everything that we are led to believe, the boys who wanted to give up their playtime to be part of it.

KS1 pupils at Writing Club, working on their own compositions.

KS1 pupils at Writing Club, working on their own compositions.

This doesn’t mean that the children are the only ones having fun. The final act of a project on the Great Fire of London will hopefully, fire service presence permitting, be a re-enactment of the fire itself in the playground, a reflection perhaps on how, as much as being an essential health and safety requirement, men in uniform are appreciated by children and teachers alike! A project on World War 2 involved the building of an Anderson shelter from wood and cardboard. The shelter became a place where lessons could take place, where relevant historical artefacts and information can be displayed too.

Gillingham Primary, a vibrant school in its own right, and a centre for ‘speech and language’ for North Dorset

Gillingham Primary, a vibrant school in its own right, and a centre for ‘speech and language’ for North Dorset

Gillingham Primary School is home to 360 children from the local area in the four to eleven age range, and it also plays host to nineteen children from within and outside Gillingham’s catchment area who are part of the school’s district-wide ‘speech and language’ work. As well as additional teaching in smaller groups, the ‘Green Base’ (infants) and ‘Gold Base’ (juniors) are integrated with the rest of the school’s children in the afternoons, to permit them to have a main stream school experience as well as the extra help that they need in the Base. This socialisation element of learning is also evident, for example, in mixed-age reading groups (Year 3 and Year 4), and also through ideas like the ‘classroom pets’ scheme, where a book is produced based on a cuddly-toy’s weekend trips to the home of each of the members of a given class. Sometimes the children write about what the pet has been doing and sometimes, where a little more imagination is used, the pet writes about what the child has been doing. In the younger classes children talk about the pet’s weekend adventures prior to a writing exercise. This is all part of the school enabling the children to write from their own experiences ensuring they all are able to succeed. ‘Hear My Voice’ books are another example of this. Children have a book in which they are free to write on whatever subject in whatever style they wish. All writing is valued as well as giving the teachers examples of how the children are able to put into practice things they have been formerly taught and also areas teachers need to further devlop or repeat.

The inside of the writing den, the popularity of which has led to older pupils wishing to have an outdoor facility of their own for lessons

The inside of the writing den, the popularity of which has led to older pupils wishing to have an outdoor facility of their own for lessons

For those with memories of primary school teachers in mortar board and billowing gown who may be harrumphing at soft toys and ‘free’ writing being used to teach literacy, Gillingham Primary School also sets school-wide targets for specific areas of literacy; these may be specific elements of grammar or, as is the case at the moment, punctuation. The targets are layered into ‘must’, ‘should’ and ‘could’ targets; all children must be able to do the basics by the end of the year, most children should be able to do slightly more complicated work and some children could go yet further. In another nod to the past, a ‘house’ system has also been re-introduced in order to combine a competitive element between parts of the school with a team-building ethos within the houses.

Tickled pink and growing green uses positive reinforcement to reward where topics from specific lessons have been correctly used, and gentle encouragement to remind pupils of elements they may have missed from that lesson

Tickled pink and growing green uses positive reinforcement to reward where topics from specific lessons have been correctly used, and gentle encouragement to remind pupils of elements they may have missed from that lesson

Having mentioned a couple of elements that might appeal to traditionalists, it is fair to say that acres of red ink do not form part of the regime. Even the use of colours is quite instructive. In the ‘Tickled Pink, Growing Green’ initiative, where a child has absolutely understood and implemented the specific learning objective being taught, they see pink highlighting to show the teacher is ‘tickled pink’ with the child’s effort. Where further work has yet to be done, green is the colour used to show where there is room for improvement. The use of the word ‘growing’ along with the colour green tries to get away from the ‘SEE ME!’ or ‘NO’ of yesteryear, but also to improve the child’s understanding of the next steps by linking any ‘growing greens’ with an explanation of where a child may need to focus his or her attention. What marking on a particular topic explicitly does not do is to mark every mistake on a page, only those relating to the learning objective taught that day, so as not to lose the message of the lesson in a sea of unrelated corrections. The marking guide, which the children understand, lets them know how they are progressing and ‘WALTs’ (What am I Learning Today) together with success criteria, let the pupils know what they are going to do in a particular lesson and then they can see how they have done against that measure afterwards.

One of the key elements involved in dealing with the huge variety of educational and social backgrounds of the students from the local area, is in the efforts the school is making in trying to ensure that the parents are confident in working with their children, in initiatives like on World Book Day, where the children come in dressed as a character from their favourite book and read with their parents in school afterwards. Home/School reading is also encouraged at all ages through the school. Parents are also able to come in for reading taster sessions, where they can find out what they can do to support their children’s reading and the school also has links with Gillingham’s Family and Adult Learning Centre to help less-confident adults. This holistic policy also extends through to the four feeder pre-schools that send children on to Gillingham Primary School. The school is developing strong links with the pre-schools and staff visit  to get to know the children, and the pre-school children visit their reception class before they actually start.

Every usable inch of wall space is used to reinforce the formal classroom lessons. Here poetry, pupils’ written work and related information all subliminally inform as the children take off and put on their coats.

Every usable inch of wall space is used to reinforce the formal classroom lessons. Here poetry, pupils’ written work and related information all subliminally inform as the children take off and put on their coats.

The team of teachers and teaching assistants at Gillingham Primary School are committed to continuing their learning and professional development and are  specialists in their fields.

It may seem obvious that the flip-side of literacy being needed in order to learn any other subject is that any other subject can be used to teach literacy, but it is quite striking just how far the idea can be taken. It is really remarkable to see a science and design technology project on lighthouses, written by an eight year old, laminated and bound with a contents page, introduction, building instructions and even a glossary.

A strikingly professionally-produced guide to lighthouses, with index, introduction, glossary and construction guide, produced by a year 4 pupil

A strikingly professionally-produced guide to lighthouses, with index, introduction, glossary and construction guide, produced by a year 4 pupil

It is fair to say that for many people, literacy is something they take for granted. It is equally fair to say that nobody at Gillingham Primary School takes it for granted, nor is anybody there content to sit on their laurels. What is sure, although Catharine Jessiman is obviously far too diplomatic and too experienced to admit it, is that they would all be terribly disappointed if the school’s efforts to improve literacy are not recognised in a future Ofsted visit.

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