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Have paint, will mural

An all-hands-on attitude to challenges has broken down academic barriers between pupils at a Northampton school, writes Linda Blackburne.

An enterprising Northampton middle school has turned its kitchen into a "Challenge Centre" for both bright and less able children.

The Mereway Middle School "Challenge Centre" committee, made up of staff, pupils, governors and parents, decides how the more able children can benefit from tailor-made projects and what special needs programmes should be devised for Mereway's 21 "statemented" pupils.

The idea coincided with Mereway being established as a centre for children with significant learning difficulties and Sir Ron Dearing's announcement that 20 per cent of school time should be for activities outside the national curriculum.

The committee sets five or six "challenges" a year, and these are often related to real problems. Pupils have painted a mural over the graffiti in a nearby subway. A colourful, 40ft dragon with a road for a tail depicts the children's concerns about pollution, and complements other paintings in the subway completed by Mereway Upper pupils.

But competitive vandals have attempted to ruin the project at every stage. Northampton Borough Council prepared the wall for the mural by painting it white but in the two days it took for the paint to dry, vandals sprayed it.

This was not too great a setback because the children had not started painting but halfway through the project, when the dragon was starting to take shape, graffiti merchants splashed paint all over their painstaking work.

The children, who were understandably upset, managed to rub most of it off and complete the mural but graffiti is still regularly sprayed over their work, even though other walls in the subway are mural-free.

In another challenge project, pupils teamed up with local police to combat speeding after a Mereway pupil was knocked off his bike by a car. The pupil, who fell into a coma after the accident, has since made a good recovery. These and other "challenge" projects are planned in the school's old kitchen servery which was no longer needed after Northamptonshire scrapped its school meals service the children now eat at the upper school.

All that remains of the kitchen are the tiled walls. Pupils and staff have transformed it into a resource centre with up-to-date multi-media technology and communications systems, including computers with concept keyboards, CD-Rom, a modem, and telephone, and high-quality, colour-coordinated wall displays.

Headteacher Allen Andres, and his deputy Claire Trott, picked up the idea of a "Challenge Centre" on an education visit to Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, in the Easter of 1994. Mr Andres said: "Over time, all children and staff have access to the area, its projects and facilities.

"It is of great importance that the 'Challenge Centre' is inclusive in its nature, rather than exclusive. Indeed, one of its greatest successes to date is the interest and pride that all children have taken.

"The nightmare scenario of a special needs room in which children may feel labelled and demotivated has not only been avoided but has in fact been banished by the establishment of a high status room where everyone wants to work."

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