Katrina Wilcox loves the colour yellow. In her headteacher's office at Windmill first school inStourport, Worcestershire, she's got yellow furniture, yellow stationery and a yellow Mr Men toy. Mr Happy, I presume. "It's just to give the place a life," she explains with a smile. Katrina Wilcox smiles a lot. There's a poster in the school's reception that sums up her philosophy. "A smile brings rest to the weary, cheer to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad and is nature's best antidote to trouble."
So it has proved. But Ms Wilcox's cheerful disposition was put to the test when she became headteacher of Windmill last year. Outside, there was a vast playing field, grim tarmac playgrounds and an overgrown pond. "It was barren - just a grey area with lots of weeds," she remembers. The school didn't have a caretaker and unwanted visitors were creating a vandalism problem. There was another problem: the school didn't have any money to spend.
Ms Wilcox reckoned that improving the dowdy exterior would do wonders for morale. "You have got to get the environment right," she says. "So we talked to the children and got them to think how we could use what was out here."
Cheap and cheerful had to be bywords for the improvement work, and with the help of a grant from an environmental trust Windmill held a "grounds week" last year. Fences were painted and grids for numerous games were drawn in bright primary colours on the grey tarmac. In addition to old favourites such as hopscotch, snakes and ladders and draughts there are clocks, compasses, road markings, a timeline, a map of the UK and a maze. More than enough to keep 200 children happy.
Gradually the nursery playground, reception playground and quiet area have accumulated new features such as a stage with curtains for performances, a blackboard and a letter tree - old mugs painted with letters which children can tap to spell a word. As well as being much cheaper than ready-made playground furniture, these home-grown games are designed to stimulate self-expression. "We wanted to encourage children to use their own creativity rather than just use set structures," says Ms Wilcox.
One element she was especially keen to include was music. Ms Wilcox, who plays guitar and piano, is the school music teacher and likes to incorporate a sing-song into her lessons. "I am forever singing," she says. "We sing our times tables, and when the children were doing their maths SATs I could hear some of them singing under their breath working out the answers."
An outdoor classroom has been created in a courtyard with picnic-style benches to seat 30. On the wall is a sound board, a collection of discarded everyday items - pots, pans, plates, jugs and bottles - that have found a new life as part of a percussion ensemble. Alongside there's a home-made xylophone made from half a dozen plumbing pipes that were donated by a parent. In the nursery playground there's a U-shaped recycled drainpipe through which children can talk or experiment with sounds. " I like them to recognise and explore how sounds can be made and changed. Music is a language that can communicate with anyone," says Ms Wilcox.
The school's musical talents were recognised when it was asked to make a musical washing line for the Growing Schools garden at the Hampton Court Flower Show in July. When Katrina Wilcox arrived at Windmill, parents had little involvement in the school; there wasn't even a PTA. But now they are beginning to see the improvements and some are raising money to pay for a nature trail to be laid out in a wooded section of the grounds currently cut off by a fence. Behaviour inside the school as well as outside has improved. "We haven't had the police in for over a year," says Ms Wilcox. "When I started here I had a Year 3 class that was the class from hell. Some of the behaviour I saw was appalling. And they became the class from heaven. We got our best results for six years."
The secret lies in sunshine management - a can-do attitude that sees the positive in everything. For example, as Katrina walks around the school, she exchanges strange hand signals with pupils. This is the "thumb-ometer", a method of letting others know how you are feeling by giving a thumbs up, sideways or down. Children are encouraged to show how much they understand of an idea in class by using the same method; it has proved a boon to teachers and made pupils more comfortable about admitting to a problem. Not a single good deed or helping hand goes unnoticed or without receiving a few words of praise.
It could have ended up like the educational equivalent of The Stepford Wives - all empty smiles and obedience. But, instead, there's a genuinely good feeling about the school and somehow it all stays the right side of corny. "We like to think we are a sunny, summery school that has a warm learning environment," is how Katrina Wilcox sums it up.
After spending just a few hours in such an optimistic school, you leave with the feeling that everything is all right in the world; the philosophy of positive reinforcement seems to work. Now if they could just tone down the colours.
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' 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