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Heads together

Mary Cruickshank describes how planners in Dorset are teaming up with schools

The inhabitants of Portland Island are getting used to coming across geography students armed with clipboards and a list of questions about what it's like to live at the southernmost tip of Dorset. If an enterprising partnership between the county's planning and education departments achieves its aims, it's likely there will soon be more visitors on the trail.

Planners and geographers have a lot in common and when they work together, both sides can benefit. Teachers gain from a wide range of topical inquiries and support materials almost ready-made for the revised curriculum; the planning profession benefits as its work becomes better understood and students learn to take a more informed role in decisions that will affect their lives.

But another motive lies behind the Weymouth and Portland initiative, which arises from the closure in April of the naval base at Portland with a loss of 4,500 jobs and Pounds 45 million a year. "Appropriate tourism", including environmentally friendly school groups, is seen as one way of bringing people and jobs back into the area.

To make life easier for teachers preparing to visit the "island" (Portland was joined to the mainland by the first Ferry Bridge in 1839), the planning department and a team of Dorset geography teachers have devised a collection of decision-making exercises based on local planning issues and supported by the kind of material that schools unfamiliar with the area are likely to find invaluable.

As well as work on the local economy and new uses for Portland Harbour, they have selected projects involving conservation areas such as Chesil Bank and the Fleet; investigations into shopping, housing and road issues; and the future of Portland's historic stone industry. Each case study is presented with background material - maps, site plans, survey data, photographs, press cuttings - and suggestions for activities. All this, together with useful local information, a summary of attractions and details of hotels, is in a teacher's pack to be launched at the Geographical Association conference in Southampton in April.

The Weymouth planning department has had increasing contact with schools as it has become clear so much of their work is relevant to GCSE and A-level geography. "We realised that what we do is ready-made for field study projects, but we needed advice on how to adapt it for school use," says Simon Williams, assistant chief planning officer, who often receives requests for information from schools.

The Dorset geography adviser and local teachers, including Rhys Davy, head of geography at Budmouth technology college and Keith Bartlett of the Royal Manor school on Portland, have helped to structure and present the projects, taking into account language level, graded tasks, and a variety of stimulating activities.

They have trialled the material and know it will save visiting teachers a lot of time. "It's exactly what teachers need," says Keith Bartlett. "If you're not local, it's very difficult to find the relevant information and get the balance of conflicting interests right."

An inquiry into the future use of the naval base and harbour, for example, presents a summary of the shortlisted options (heavy industry, a mixed commercial port and leisure uses) and the advantages and disadvantages of each. The various commercial, fishing, recreational and nature conservation interests are reflected in the council's draft management plan as well as in newspaper cuttings and role play material. Pupils will be able to compare the results of their own fieldwork with the actual outcomes of the inquiry.

Another project focuses on the eastern end of Chesil Beach, the famous 17-mile-long shingle bank which separates the tidal lagoon of the Fleet from the sea. Part of the council's management plan for this area included an information centre, which opened last August. The warden, Don Moxon, is employed not only to protect the delicate marine habitats of the reserve, but to introduce visitors to its rich and varied wildlife, which includes a rare breeding colony of little terns. They also find out about the many pressures on the beach: birdwatchers, bait diggers, fishermen, divers, swimmers, sailboarders, mountain bikers and so on. As well as drawing up management plans, students are encouraged to ask the fundamental question: "Why bother with all this conservation?" Portland stone has been quarried since Roman times and used for some of London's most famous buildings. "What to do with the quarries" is the subject of another inquiry, linking geological, economic and environmental factors.

Tout Quarry on the west side of the island hasn't been worked since the Twenties, but has been given a new lease of life both as a nature reserve with rare and beautiful limestone flora, and as the home of the Portland Sculpture Trust, an exciting open-air studio and exhibition space, where the quarry-workers' skilfully constructed arches are admired as much as contemporary works of art. In summer the quarry comes to life with workshops for schools and colleges and stone-carving courses.

The aims of the Sculpture Trust are on-site learning, creativity and discovery; a powerful combination that could equally well apply to the other fieldwork opportunities Weymouth and Portland have to offer.

Further details of the Field Studies Initiative - Geography Enquiry Teacher's Pack from Simon Williams, Planning Department, Municipal Offices, North Quay, Weymouth, Dorset DT4 8TA. Tel: 01305 206333

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