Alice James is not from these parts. She works as a newly qualified teacher at Southery Primary School in rural Norfolk, but grew up across the border near Cambridge. The Fens have a fearsome reputation for hostility to outsiders, and Southery village is on the crown of a hill overlooking deepest fenland. From the playground the country rolls out to a distant horizon. All the children at this small school come from the village or nearby.
"At first I was nervous about teaching in such a small school," says Alice, "but it's been really welcoming. Parents come and help a lot. When we did sewing with the children, nine parents out of 19 helped." This does have a flip side, as Alice wearily admits. "Parents have no qualms about coming and asking questions."
This community involvement is what makes a rural school tick, according to headmaster Jeremy Wilkinson. "At a village school, discipline comes from outside. No one wants their kids to stand out." It seems to work. Alice tells me about a special needs child in her class who may be trouble at home, but who is quiet when he is in class; the other children are also behaving themselves. Even with a visitor there ("the man" as I am known) they settle in for registration and word tests. And a potentially explosive game of bingo, by which the children learn their numbers, is calm, if confusing for some. No one wins it could be that none of the kids wanted to stand out, though their puzzled gawps suggest it's just that they didn't understand the game.
Starting off at a small rural school means that it is easier to get to know the other teachers as well as the parents. This has certainly helped Alice to get into her stride. "Everyone pitches in, and if you ask for something you know the person you're getting it from." This is very different from her work experience in a town in North Wales, she says, where Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 staff took lunch separately and it was difficult to get to know all her colleagues. "Here it is a family thing. Other teachers look after me I'm the same age as their children. And everyone gets on socially, too."
While the size of Southery makes getting to know people easier, it has sometimes made Alice's job more difficult. Since September, for example, she has had to teach a mixed class of Year 1s and Year 2s children aged five, six and seven. However, although it was hard work to begin with, she has settled into it now and the class works well. The younger children are asked to spell out simple words like "dog" and "bug", while their older classmates do "smell" and "spin". There is a chorus of vowel sounds and sibilants as the two groups think aloud. Then they are asked to finish a story that has been read to them about Father Christmas and Roly Poly Mountain. Both groups do the same exercise but at different levels of complexity and using different key words.
But while some things change from big town school to small rural school, other concerns are all too familiar. Alice's biggest worry has been the SATs. "That was the hardest two weeks for me, even compared to taking on a mixed class in September. It's very stressful. Just getting the kids to work on their own and not speak is hard enough with this age group." Despite the problems, however, she is glad to be teaching and appreciates seeing her children use the knowledge she has given them, such as how to make a circuit. Teaching was not her first choice of profession. Originally she was going to study catering and hospitality. But a year of bar work made her sick of rude customers and late nights, so she re-applied to do a BEd at the University of Wales in Bangor. She still gets the late nights, but the customers are better behaved.
When she brought her Welsh boyfriend out east for the first time he was most surprised by the lack of hills locally. But the big change for Alice has been the greater autonomy she has as a newly-qualified teacher compared with when she was training. "You're more responsible for all your decisions. For example, if you decide that a class hasn't grasped something then you can repeat it. You don't have to report to someone else." But she does welcome the support she gets. "My mentor Anne teaches Year 1 maths and she's always there for advice and help with resources, so for once I didn't have to create worksheets out of nothing."
Alice has also been lucky at Southery to get a full day a week as a non-contact day. This was partly a decision by the school one of the advantages of teaching at a more relaxed rural school and partly because Norfolk LEA gives the whole termly £800 Newly Qualified Teacher grant direct to the Southery to look after Alice. In some LEAs, like Essex, this is spent on courses rather than being given to the schools. Alice is pleased with the way it has worked out. "The non-contact day has allowed me to do my literacy and numeracy planning," she says. "Without it I would have struggled to keep my head above water."
But of course it is the class that counts, and Alice has some real characters. Laz suggests that Father Christmas might give someone an incubator for Christmas. Lydia tries to get my attention in the playground, first by telling her friends that she wants to kiss me and then by sticking her bum in the air and making farting noises. And Bee, a tidy girl who is guarding her well-organised stationery, tells me that her favourite subjects are geography and history. She is bound to go far: her favourite colours are bronze, silver, and gold. As for Alice herself, she is staying put for now. She still goes shopping in Cambridge, but she's made a home for herself here in the Fens.