Within minutes of arriving at West Rise Junior School, it’s clear this is no ordinary place: the headteacher is powering across dried-out marshland on a quad bike, sweeping past water buffalo and sending birds scattering.
The quad bike isn’t just for fun. When you’ve got 120 acres of land with a replica Bronze Age roundhouse, and dozens of pupils taking part in activities ranging from clay-pigeon shooting to paddle-boarding on the lake, you need to get around fast.
It was this spirit of adventure that helped the East Sussex school to be crowned primary of the year at the 2015 TES Schools Awards last month. With an intake of about 250 children, mostly from an Eastbourne council estate, West Rise provides an experience like no other, inspired by the discovery of a Bronze Age settlement nearby.
The school leases the marshland from the council for just £1,000 a year and uses it as perhaps the world’s largest classroom, following Scandinavian Forest School principles to teach children self-reliance and an understanding of nature, mixing history and science with a sense of awe.
“Three thousand years ago, people would be living in roundhouses like the one we recently built. There would have been hunting and fishing here; living; having a spiritual life,” says headteacher Mike Fairclough.
“Some of the artefacts that have been found on this site are so rare they’re in the British Museum. When you come across that kind of thing as an educationalist, you have to think, let’s do something with that.”
The project has involved everyone at the school, with even the caretakers becoming educators. Site manager Paul Hemmings also takes Forest School classes, and says the eight- to 11-year-olds thrive on the responsibility of using fire and tools, as well as more modern shotguns and air rifles.
“In the Bronze Age, young people did the thinking, the working and the making,” Mr Hemmings says, explaining that short life expectancies meant the teenage years were mid-life.
“We always say that this is what they would have been doing in the Bronze Age. They wouldn’t have been in a classroom, they would be hunting, reaping, fishing.”
Mr Fairclough, a former art student and self-described hippie, never planned this when he joined the school as headteacher – he just intended to introduce more creativity.
His first act was to establish a Room 13 art studio, a franchise of student-run art projects named after a pioneering initiative in Fort William, Scotland. It changed the culture of the school, partly because some teachers hated it.
“Room 13 divided the school between those who were up for a change and creativity and those who weren’t. They just left,” Mr Fairclough says.
When he arrived, he adds, the school was surrounded by a 20ft fence and pupils weren’t required to line up because their behaviour was deemed too poor. Now they handle shotguns and manage open fires responsibly.
Karen Stephens, a higher-level teaching assistant who runs Room 13, says: “If you speak to the staff, they love the fact that the children are quite confident, are independent, are very well-behaved. I’ve been here for 13 years, before Mike was here. I’d say that behaviour has changed dramatically, because the children want these opportunities.”
The school’s menagerie began with a few chickens for a Second World War “Dig for Victory” project. Later on, sheep arrived; they still wander the playground or put their heads into classrooms. “Children become accustomed to expect the unknown,” Mr Fairclough says.
Then the Bronze Age inspiration struck, eventually leading to the acquisition of six hulking water buffalo for £750, the closest thing the school could find to the now-extinct aurochs that would have roamed the marshes.
“I’m just saying yes to people’s brilliant ideas,” Mr Fairclough says. “My whole kind of vibe is to be allowing and accepting of absolutely everybody. Everybody who comes to the school will always have some sort of magic they can add to it.”
He describes this approach as “creativity with rigour”. This year, Mr Fairclough expects a percentage of students in the “high 90s” to reach level 4 in literacy and numeracy at key stage 2, in a school where double the average number of children qualify for the pupil premium.
Students write about their Bronze Age experiences on the marshes, and teachers say the real-life opportunities vastly improve their writing skills.
After a day spent smelting iron and copper, dyeing wool, flint-knapping and foraging for food, Mr Fairclough says, “even our ‘weakest’ writers were writing stuff that gave you goosebumps because they had been there, they’d done it”.
Staff also demonstrate their own resilience by shrugging off mishaps that would send other schools scurrying for cover. One teacher drove the quad bike into a river with Mr Fairclough on the back (“We’re trying to keep that one quiet,” he tells TES). The water buffalo escaped and headed to the Eastbourne waterfront where they were found eating someone’s privet hedge. The Daily Mail criticised the school for letting young children use guns and for slaughtering a pig. And when West Rise acquired a beehive, the headteacher was pursued by thousands of angry bees after deciding not to wear a protective suit because he was feeling “cosmic” and at one with nature.
Mr Fairclough laughs off the incident. “It’s good for the kids to see that we’re all human: if you’re going to take risks there will be some things that don’t work out. If I can be relaxed that not everything will turn out the way I want it to, so can they.”
The only problem, he says, is that some children find the transition to a more normal school hard. And although he turned down an executive headship elsewhere last year, he hopes other schools will take inspiration from West Rise, even if they can’t copy it. “It’s not about replicating this,” he says. “Not everyone needs or wants a water buffalo.”
West Rise’s Bronze Age discovery
Found in 1995 during the creation of a new park next to the school’s marsh.
The “outstanding archaeological remains” have been studied by British Museum experts.
Pottery dates the site to between 800BC and 600BC.
Archaeologists found previously unknown artefacts, including a unique sickle probably used for cutting reeds.
The settlement was built on a 500m2 platform.
An 8m-wide causeway on stilts crossed the wetlands.
Read more in the 10 July issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.