SO UGLY were the railings and gate at St Mun's Primary in Dunoon that they made the school look like a "prison", according to one teacher. That was before the pupils raised pound;13,500, commissioned a blacksmith and artist to change them, and won a prestigious education award for their efforts.
PlayForce was the title given to the company of pupils representing all classes in the school. They held a public meeting to raise support from businesses and residents, explaining that the railings would display the social and natural history of Dunoon.
The response was swift: "It was absolutely fantastic," recalls Helen Brown, the P5 teacher and project co-ordinator. "Before the end of the night, people were already putting their hands in their pockets."
The railings run alongside a busy path, and such was the mark made on the local community as work progressed, that passers-by sometimes dropped in to make donations.
An attractive proposition, meanwhile, was put to local businesses: in return for a financial contribution, they would be represented on the railings. The subsequent designs were charming rather than crassly commercial, with a ferry operator represented by a boat, a cafe by a tea cup, builders by a digger, and a holiday estate by a caravan.
The money was raised over three years through grant applications, fundraising projects with the parent teachers association, such as race nights and fairs, and the sale of keyrings and magnets made by the children.
The youngsters had a clear idea of what they wanted and were keen to find out how closely the finished result would match their designs. The different age groups took on different briefs, with topics including "underneath the water, on top of the water", Victorian history, the high street and natural heritage. That meant including images of Punch and Judy and a paddle steamer, among others.
PlayForce hired a blacksmith, Scott Tyre, and an artist, Sandi Kiehlmann.
The latter had to field searching questions when interviewed by the children; they were particularly keen to know whether she had worked with children before. "She was a bit shocked," says Mrs Brown.
St Mun's staff feel the project has developed skills in many subjects: budgeting helped with maths; letter-writing to potential financial contributors developed English; and they learned about local history, including Harry Lauder's roots in the area and the discovery that the asdic radar system (early echo sounder for detecting submarines) was developed in Dunoon during the Second World War. "It's gone right through the curriculum, right through the school," Mrs Brown says.
The pupils' confidence also increased greatly, thanks to addressing public meetings with as many as 60 people, and fielding enquiries when manning a stall at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, in Glasgow.
"Everyone commented on how articulate they were, how well they negotiated,"
says Mrs Brown. One boy's progress was particularly impressive. "Before, you would have to coax him to come out and read anything out loud," she remembers. Now, the same boy has taken up public speaking.
The final results, which include designs on 17 panels, have received huge praise, including the Director of Education's Award from Argyll and Bute Council. Members of the public, meanwhile, can often be seen stopping to photograph the railings.
The project has also helped establish good links with Dunoon Grammar. Some of the pupils who were originally involved in PlayForce have moved on to the secondary school, returning for last week's official opening, while pipers from both schools played at the event.
Now that the new-look railings are complete, Mrs Brown is keen to keep up the momentum and turn PlayForce's attention to its next ambitious project - designing a tourist pamphlet using the local history depicted on the railings. This time, the pupils will have to hold discussions with the local tourist office, learn from the staff's expertise and float the idea that the office could stock the pamphlets.