The story of one school

The Natural Environment White Paper, the Natural Choice launched in 2011 outlines the Government’s vision for the natural environment over the next 50 years and recognises that a healthy natural environment is the foundation for sustainable economic growth, prospering communities and personal wellbeing. Natural Choice covers a wide range of environmental issues and it is the ‘reconnecting people with nature’ chapter that is most relevant to this case study on nature and children.

One of the actions identified in the report says that it will remove the barriers to learning outdoors and increase the schools’ abilities to teach outdoors when they wish to do so. This case study on Waterbeach Community Primary School takes a look at some of the barriers encountered by one school and some of the achievements made in its aim to reconnect children to the nature on their doorstep.

Waterbeach Community Primary School is in the village of Waterbeach, situated a few miles north of Cambridge. It is a mixed primary school with 250 pupils aged 4 – 11. The school has extensive grounds and over the past 4 years has been raising awareness with pupils, parents and staff about environmental issues relating to biodiversity, recycling and energy conservation.

To provide structure and to have a goal to aspire to the school joined the Eco Schools Awards run by Keep Britain Tidy. An eco-committee of adults and children was set up and an environmental action plan drawn up with the following priorities:

  • reduce energy consumption
  • reuse and recycle waste
  • increase biodiversity of the school grounds

In 2011 the school achieved the Green Flag Award which recognises excellence in reaching environmental activity within the school. To achieve the award the school installed solar panels, put in place a recycling policy to recycle paper, cardboard and plastic and is embarking on a major school grounds initiative.

Increasing biodiversity

Many of the parents and teachers expressed an interest in making better use of the school grounds and the children were keen to see it managed for more wildlife. An overgrown nature area was cleared with the help of the National Trust through their Guardianship Scheme and the school and volunteers raised funds to plant an orchard and wildflower meadow. Fruit trees were selected that were in keeping with local historical orchards that were once common in the area. Phase 2 saw the renovation of the pond and construction of an oak timber dipping platform. Early monitoring shows that newts and frogs have bred in the new pond and aquatic life is flourishing. The orchard has seen additional planting of a mixed native hedge and lavender to attract bees. Waterbeach School is fortunate in having grounds that can be used for nature and outdoor study. In contrast many other urban and rural schools face the additional barrier of travel and associated costs to take children and adults to and from parks and open spaces which are often located some distance from the school.

Funding

Funding for environmental work is a significant barrier as there are few grants eligible for schools to apply for because most grant funders require public access and school grounds have to be closed during the school day. Searching and applying for grants is also a very time consuming and can be a dispiriting activity. An application however, by PJ.elements to the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Biodiversity Partnership was successful in raising £800 towards improving the biodiversity in the school grounds. The rest of the money came from the hard work of the PTA and volunteers who are committed to improving the school for their children.

Education value

While it is important to care for the environment, the improvements that the school has achieved have an incredible education value. Not only are children actively engaged in caring for the environment, they are learning through hands on experience why it is important and how a better environment can be achieved.  This requires good subject knowledge and an ability to make connections throughout the curriculum. Lack of environmental knowledge and skills among staff can be a barrier to outdoor learning but Waterbeach addressed this by providing both on site and external training and staff are now becoming more confident in using the school grounds as a resource.

For the future

The school is aiming to integrate outdoor learning into a new curriculum and is now seeking to construct an all-weather outdoor classroom with equipment such as wildlife camera traps, better identification books and pond dipping equipment. With the help of keen volunteers, the Forest Schools activity in the nature area is developing and is well liked by all who take part.  The school is also embarking on a new project, funded by the Communities Landfill Fund to work with the Woodland Trust on upgrading Cow Hollow, a local  woodland adjacent to the village.