School in the forest is out of the woods

A once-floundering special school is now rated outstanding after the head brought nature into the lessons

Teacher Nation - An occasional series focusing on the diverse nature of schools throughout the UK, and what makes them so successful.

An invasion of mice meant Heart of the Forest Special School had to close for a day last November.

Clearly, the rodents found the school's cosy new buildings preferable to the chilly undergrowth of the surrounding Forest of Dean.

And this summer, an army of squirrels decimated the sunflowers and snatched strawberries from the school's vegetable garden.

This was perhaps not quite what Howard Jones, the school's head, meant when he said he wanted to "bring the school into the forest and the forest into the school". But it is a small price to pay for the school's stunning Gloucestershire location.

The school caters for a wide range of pupils, from those with moderate learning difficulties to those with profound and multiple special educational needs. The marvellous setting gives them a wide variety of outdoor opportunities.

Pride of the school is the new "deer lawn". Situated just outside the school's boundary, Forestry Commission rangers have helped pupils create a clearing in the woods, tufted with bracken and foxgloves. Mineral blocks have been laid out to entice deer, and wood piles have been created to attract creepy crawlies. In spring, it bursts into a carpet of bluebells.

But the local fauna, including wild boar, hawks and other birds, is shy, so a CCTV camera is due to be installed to film the animals' visits. It will be broadcast in the school and beamed to a screen in the nearby village of Cinderford, helping to establish the school within the wider local community.

Meanwhile, in the school grounds, Howard Eason, a key stage 3 teacher, helps pupils to run a vegetable garden. "It's great for children to follow the growing process, from planting to consuming. We're already eating salads and potatoes," says Mr Eason. "Pupils take real pride in it and it teaches them a few life skills - it's very hands on.

Mr Eason hopes in future to build a chicken run and bring in a small flock of sheep.

Elsewhere on the site, a wildlife pond is being constructed under the direction of Ian Scott, another KS3 teacher. Local gravediggers dug the hole, then pupils from the school's Nature Detectives club set about creating a watery reserve.

Mr Scott says: "It's a work in progress, but that's good. The making of the pond and decking is one project, but it opens up potential for some great research projects.

"It has been great for some of our pupils too. One boy was extremely phobic about changing his routine - the idea of him staying behind after school was unthinkable. But when he did and enjoyed it, his parents couldn't believe it."

This commitment to outdoor activities may have contributed to the school being labelled "outstanding" by Ofsted in May last year.

But it suffered a faltering start when it opened in September 2005 following the controversial merger of two special schools - Dean Hall, on Heart of the Forest's site, and Oakdene in Cinderford - in a bid by the local authority to integrate pupils with moderate learning difficulties into mainstream schools and reduce places from 66 to 50.

But locals, especially parents, did not agree with the change. The number of places was subsequently raised to 60, although the school has never had fewer than 68.

When it opened on the two sites, the situation was "shambolic", says Mr Jones. "By our own assessment, we would have been labelled at best serious weaknesses, at worst special measures," he says.

Thankfully, the situation improved rapidly once the high-tech buildings - complete with a multi-sensory room, hydrotherapy pool, neon art installation and the latest ICT - were finished.

Pam Jones, vice chair of governors, says: "Howard worked incredibly hard to move the two schools and teams of staff together. There were reservations about the change, but the way staff developed the curriculum to meet the needs of each child has given parents confidence. This has been helped by a genuine open-door policy."

She is also proud of the school's inclusivity. Unlike some special schools, pupils are grouped by age, not disability. "The pupils don't seem to notice," she says. "They help each other."

Helen Few, assistant head, agrees, although accommodating such a wide variety of needs has required extra work. "We were worried about combining the two schools and all levels of special needs," she says. "We had to put special support in place for pupils with moderate learning difficulties - to help make them feel important - helping with the little ones, for example. They actually end up feeling more able than they are."

Mr Jones now has plans for an extension, thanks to a Pounds 4.5 million grant from Gloucestershire council.

He also hopes to become the first special school to gain a grant from the Learning and Skills Council, to develop post-16 provision - providing the local wildlife doesn't disrupt his plans.

Personal growth

Pupils at Heart of the Forest School follow a highly personalised curriculum, which allows those with profound learning difficulties to progress on a scale below that of level 1 of the national curriculum.

Teachers encourage development in areas such as early thinking skills, communication, behaviour and mobility. Some pupils are able to access the national curriculum levels and work towards nationally accredited awards.

The most able pupils gain GCSE art and entry-level qualifications in subjects such as science. Post-16 students are offered the Towards Independence courses run by the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network.

Hands-on tasks such as creating a `deer lawn' with rangers (main) and constructing a wildlife pond (bottom left) complement interactive indoor activities and images (top right) or the art installation corridor (bottom right) at Heart of the Forest School.

Photographs: Stephen Shepherd.

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