The first thing that greets visitors to Palatine special school in Worthing, East Sussex, is a welcome wall, a cheerful construction of tiles, plaster and pebbles. Not so long ago, when pupils built it with help from teacher William Bauress, it was all fields round here - playing fields. But today you just have to look beyond it to see that something very special indeed has happened at Palatine since then. In three years the previously nondescript grounds of this suburban school have been transformed. It has happened on a tiny budget, with most of the materials begged or bought cheaply, and the hard work done by a handful of teachers, a small band of volunteers and, most significantly, every one of the school's 150 pupils aged five to 16.
They have planted hedges, trees and flowers, laid paths and decking, built flowerbeds, and most glorious (and laborious) of all, dug the pond which is now the focal point of the garden. Pond is too diminutive a word for something that took two years to excavate by hand, is 10 metres long, and has a bridge and a jetty. It's more of a small lake. Not many schools would take on such a project but, as Jennie Rollings, one of the two teachers who have overseen the garden's creation, explains: "We don't do anything in small measures."
You can soon see what she means. The school has a rockery garden with storytelling seat, a sanctuary garden, a herb garden built from railway sleepers, and a seaside patio decorated with driftwood washed up on the beach less than a mile south. Then there's a formal millennium garden with lawns and small trees, a verdant vegetable patch and a wilder conservation area next to the pond with log piles, buddleias and nesting boxes. "But," adds Jennie, "it's not just gardening; it's building and constructing."
A lot of hard landscaping was required before the gardening could start, which is where Jennie's colleague William Bauress comes in. William is a part-time teacher but now spends most of the working day there helping children with construction jobs. "I have a practical background," he says, with the understatement of someone who has built four houses. "Big structural jobs for children are very exciting. If you are ambitious enough and have the courage to start a project like this, it provides lots of simple activities for children. It's not a question of doing complicated things, it's just about being involved. If you have a piece of land and you think it would look better with a path, then you only have to take the turf off and put down a surface."
Working alongside the children is, he says, "like leaving a football match after your team has won. You are surrounded by lots of people with the same feeling of wellbeing".
The garden's bold landscaping incorporates some inspired creative touches. Fence panels made from giant perspex leaf shapes spangled with nail varnish and the miniature hanging baskets fashioned from the tops of large plastic bottles lined with clay dug from the ground both featured in the Growing Schools garden at the Hampton Court flower show last month. "A lot of our children have motor problems, so doing them really explored their skills," says Jennie.
The garden's many areas are separated and framed by hedges of young hazel and beech trees - the school rescued and planted around 400 trees that were grown for trials but due to be shredded. These hedgerows also make sure that children can't wander unsupervised into the pond area.
Another spectacular feature in years to come will be the collection of trees. After the devastation wreaked by the 1987 hurricane, a couple of local gardeners began growing unusual trees from seed and offered to supply Palatine with saplings. The school now has a fine collection of non-native trees, with more than 40 varieties of maple, chestnut, lime, magnolia, tupelo and eucalyptus.
Palatine's efforts have been rewarded with more accolades than you can shake a length of coppiced hazel at (including best school project three years running at Worthing in Bloom, two national awards for its pond project and acceptance this year into the National Gardens scheme), but they have also brought unexpected rewards.
"My belief," says Jennie, "is that what we are doing is absolutely inspirational, particularly for difficult children; they get a feeling of self-esteem they don't get in the classroom. They get the feeling, 'I could achieve something, I can do it, I am successful'. Also, they have a beautiful environment around them all the time and the knowledge that they have made it."
A keen amateur gardener, Jennie threw herself into the school garden project to escape the increasing bureaucracy and paperwork that went with her job. "Having got into this project I have been inspired by what it has done for the children, what it has done for the school, and what it has done for me personally". Now, she says, "I work twice as hard as I used to."
Michael, one of the secondary pupils, is helping some younger children prepare beds for planting. "When I was younger, coming out here was relaxing, a bit of a rest," he says. "I like the peace and quiet and sunshine. It's practical learning too." When he leaves school he hopes to make a career out of what he has learned. "I'd like to work with my uncle, who does landscaping."
But no one sums up the garden's delights quite as well as one of Jennie's pupils. When asked what he likes about it, he answers quite simply. "When you look around, everything looks beautiful."
The Growing Schools garden is part of a government initiative called Growing Schools which was launched in September 2001 and is supported by a pound;500,000 grant from the Department for Education and Skills. The initiative aims to increase pupils' understanding and involvement in outdoor education by funding visits to farms and environmental centres, developing school grounds, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Further projects are planned for the next two years. For details go to www.growingschools.org.uk or www.schoolsgarden.org.uk. For more information on palatine go to www.pavilion.co.ukpalatine