Education: A skip ahead of the rest: Maypole dancing means fun, and profit, for multi-ethnic Winton School, says Lesley Gerard

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THE BAND strikes up. To the strange, strangled buzz of kazoos and country rhythm of melodeons, children skip around a maypole, weaving an intricate web. It is a scene straight from Merry England - except it is mid-October, not May, and this is inner-city London.

At Winton School, a 250-pupil, multi-ethnic primary in King's Cross, children have been learning country dancing after school once a week for five years. Their enthusiasm is about to earn the school national recognition.

Education Extra, a charity launched two years ago to promote extracurricular activities, will today give the school's dance club the highest award out of 57 winning schemes throughout the country.

The pounds 1,000 prize will provide musical instruments, an authentic maypole to replace the wobbly netball post that used to do the job, and straw boaters.

Wendy Chaffe, a teacher at Winton, reels off a long list of the benefits country dancing brings to all children. 'They learn co-ordination, collaboration and musical training. It is hard physical exercise, excellent at building every child's confidence,' she says.

'Anyone who races around tugging the ribbon too hard is likely to spoil the whole effect. Teamwork is a very important aspect of the maypole.'

Jane Fulford, the headteacher, says: 'It does not matter whether it is traditional English dancing, Indian dancing or Afro-Caribbean. They have studied other projects and picked up so many skills.

'Hopefully, by encouraging children at this age to take up hobbies, they will keep interested as teenagers and have found something to do rather than slumping in front of the television.'

The scheme began by accident five years ago, when Mrs Chaffe joined Winton.

'A previous teacher had made the makeshift pole. I noticed it in passing and made a comment to the head. Within weeks she had sent me a video and teacher's guide.

'I discovered that I had a talent, not for the dancing but for being able to teach it to the children. It is my hobby now.'

There is also no shortage of boys volunteering to dance. 'When the new ones start I tell them: 'If any of you go 'Yuk' when you hold hands with a member of the opposite sex, then you might as well go home now',' Mrs Chaffe says.

'I tell the boys that if any of their friends call them a sissy, then I will bring a 15-stone, six-foot morris man in with flowers around his head and see whether they are brave enough to call him names. That usually works.'

Emilio Fernandes, 10, joined two years ago after watching other pupils perform the May Day celebrations. 'Dancing with the girls is not a problem,' he says. 'We all agreed it would look pretty stupid if girls had to partner each other and the boys danced together.'

Neither are uniforms of black tracksuit bottoms, white shirts, red neckerchiefs and straw boaters decorated with silk flowers a potential source of embarrassment.

'It is the socks. They are white girls' socks, and although they are covered by bells, people still tease you,' Emilio says.

His friend Leon Providence, nine, agrees. 'When we do a display on May Day, the biggest worry is that people will laugh at you about the socks, or that you will get it wrong. But afterwards, when you have finished the dance and got it right, you feel great. And my mum is really proud. She says we look brilliant.'

Today, officials from Education Extra will hand out pounds 17,000-worth of awards to 57 schemes chosen for providing unusual and interesting extracurricular activities. They range from an assertiveness training scheme at Stewards School in Harlow, Essex, to a business making garden ornaments and furniture at Barton Secure Unit, Eccles, near Manchester.

Funding for the awards includes donations in kind from businesses.

Mike Walton, deputy director of Education Extra, says: 'Research has shown that providing extracurricular activities as part of the ethos of the school can actually improve the whole atmosphere, and even classroom performance.

'The Winton scheme impressed us because of that mix of a rural tradition being practised in an inner-city school.'

(Photograph omitted)