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Built for beauty - and lessons

Woodlea primary school draws you into its crooked crescent of brick and wood buildings with the charm of a place designed and built with care, precision and purpose.

The Hampshire primary school, which opened just over two years ago, has won a raft of architectural design awards - from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the BBC and others - and the visionaries from the county's architecture department can be justly proud of their achievement: a seven-classroom primary nestling at the foot of an ancient hill fort among fragrant fir trees and graceful silver birches.

The school reflects the thought that was put into it: its purpose; its users, young and adult; its environment. Architect Nev Churcher says it is "a collection of sheds on three levels, linked by ramped passage- ways and lit by windows, clerestories and lanterns". This modest description does not do his building justice. The way the classrooms and open areas connect through large round windows, tall thin ones, and small, child-height panes - allowing them private glimpses outside where teachers must duck to get the same view - creates a sense of unity and homeliness for the 210 children and 15 full and part-time teachers and assistants.

Looking down through the trees and bracken to the playing field - a large opening circled by dense woods - there's a sense of stillness and ancient calm, mixed with the warm hubbub of children busy in their classrooms.

Carol Day, who teaches a mixed class of 31 six and seven-year-olds, says the school is special, and is enthusiastic about the positive contribution the building and its leafy environment make to the children's learning experience.

"We use the school as a learning resource. This term we've been doing houses and homes and have been looking at the variety of materials used in the school. There is so much that can be talked about where wood has been used as a building material."

The building's irregularly shaped rooms and range of windows and sky-lights all make for an interesting and stimulating environment: each class opens directly on to covered outdoor areas, with those at the front of the crescent having wooden decks, where classes can spread on sunny days.

Sinks, hot and cold taps and tiled areas, with unique, hand-made tiles, all decorated with different motifs, allow each class great flexibility in teaching activities. But it's not all sweetness and light: Mrs Day, like other members of staff, would prefer more space and the large number of windows can make for cold winters and hot summers. Patterned and terracotta tiles look beautiful but can be a shock to small, bare feet when it's time for PE.

These are small considerations: Mrs Day used to work in an old, urban Victorian school and with everything being new at Woodlea she says there's no comparison.

Down the corridor Theresa Brewer, Woodlea's first head in her first headship, realises how fortunate she is. Other schools must travel for the activities and experiences available on their doorstep. Tucked away within the wood, Woodlea is only yards from a modern housing estate. It might just as well be miles away: no traffic noise intrudes and each class gets up to two playtimes a week running free in the wooded grounds.

The way the staff work together with the children within the school - co-operating rather like a large family - is what makes it all work, Miss Brewer says.

"We use the building to enhance the philosophy of the school: children can go away in little groups and develop their own structured independence. The school has lots of little hidey-holes where children can be on their own. The design enables this as well as allowing whole-class activities."

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