All the way across;Environment;Subject of the week;Interview;Wendy Leeke

25th June 1999 at 01:00
A 'Monet' bridge at the centre of a school gardenled to first place in an environmental award scheme. Virginia Purchon strolls over with the woman who engineered the school's green ethos.

Spanning a pond in the conservation area of Nyewood infants' school, at Bognor Regis, west Sussex, the "Monet" bridge just invites visitors to walk across it. The bridge is a remarkable feature in some remarkable school grounds created by headteacher Wendy Leeke, winner of the 1999 Tetra Pak award for environmental teaching in primary schools.

Ten years ago, inspired by her own country childhood and following the death of her husband, she set out to convert the lawn and Tarmac of a corner of suburban Bognor Regis into a piece of countryside. The metamorphosis reflects her vision and determination.

Now the grounds contain a herb garden, rabbit run, raised vegetable plots (one for each class) and living willow wigwam (too small for grown-ups). As I and my fellow judge descend, children lead us through to the wildlife area with its two ponds where others are searching out newts. The trees carry bat and bird boxes. We all squash into the secret den in the bushes.

Reaching the compost heap, Rebecca declares: "We haven't just got minibeasts - we've got a slow worm," and Josh points out a drop of rainwater on some big dock leaves.

Further on, the children proudly show the peaceful butterfly garden, mini-flower meadow where lizards bask ("They're quite rare aren't they?"), rainwater butt, recycling bins and, finally, bluebell wood - including resident fairy who writes tiny letters on blue paper. There we sit down to hear Jo read 'Recycling Rubbish', the story of Green Class's trip to the local dump.

Wendy Leeke has woven the environment into the cloth of the curriculum right through the school. She is adamant that young children learn through real-life situations, that questions are a learning challenge, and observation of nature is a stimulus for the visual arts and literacy.

Her environmental tapestry is not only about saving resources and energy, but also about learning maths, science, geography and history through the living things. Undaunted by literacy and numeracy directives she believes the environment is a good starting point for young children. Too much emphasis can be placed on books, she says.

The indoor environment is important at Nyewood, too: there are bunches of wildflowers in the dining room; a Monet-inspired watercolour frieze reveals the children's observation and painting skills; eggs are warmed in an incubator; in a corner of the library a table is laid for a dolls' tea party; and an old Wealden cottage has been recreated in a classroom, candlesticks and all.

Wendy Leeke has involved not only parents in her projects, but also the local council and even prisoners from Ford open prison. Now about to retire, she leaves a dedicated team to carry forward the whole-school policy she has established.

Wendy Leeke and her school share a first prize of pound;2,000. The competition, run by Tetra Pak, the Swedish company that makes all those orange juice and milk cartons, is now in its fifth year. This year it asked for recommendations of teachers who had "developed original, exciting and effective environmental projects" and were "embracing curriculum requirements, demonstrating good primary practice and laying the foundations for good citizenship". Teachers had to have used "their influence to ensure greater emphasis on environmental teaching throughout their schools, and their enthusiasm to involve the wider community in their cause".

The winner was chosen by four judges, of whom I was one. We have all taught primary children and we all shared a wide knowledge about environmental issues. To shortlist six worthy prizewinners, we ignored presentation and concentrated on the people - teachers whose imagination and application make a real difference.

After the short-listing came the best bit - visiting the finalists to savour their work at first hand. We wanted to find out how far the children were in tune with the environmental ethos - beyond picking up litter, turning off lights and recycling newspapers. Was there a real interest and care for the natural environment? Talking to children gives a feel for learning outcomes. When an 11-year-old admits that she "used to think the environment was the park", you realise someone's teaching has had an impact. The seven-year-olds at Nyewood really brought this realisation home.

All the finalists had made significant achievements through a long-term commitment. Barbara Heath, second prize-winner, who has been environmental advocate for years in a large Midlands primary school, says new support let her "burst into leaf like a tree in spring". She has had the whole school planting trees in Cannock Chase.

Disappointingly, few of the entries came from city schools. Creating and maintaining any wildlife area in such a school is difficult, and vandalism can be a problem. But once the children "own" the trees, anything is possible. Even in the countryside, where machines work the land and parents commute town-wards, pupils need to learn to appreciate and care for the environment.

Every shortlisted school was unique - in location, size and starting point of pupils. Each teacher, coming to the task from a different background and perspective, had done something special, whether it was creating stunning playground art using fir-cones, flowers, seashells, pebbles and twigs or coming up with a green rap. Nyehouse School was a beacon of excellence - a first among equals.

The other finalists (receiving prizes ranging from pound;350-pound;750) were:

* Barbara Heath, Gorsemoor Primary, Heath Hayes, nr Cannock, Staffordshire

* Lynn Holloway, Great Eccleston Copp primary, Great Eccleston, nr Preston

* Andy Clark, Canon Burrows primary, Aschton-under-Lyne, nr Manchester

* Vera Collis, Crawley Green Infants, Luton

* Janet Kirk, Drumhaglis Primary, nr Crossgar, Co Down

Tetra Pak Awards for Environmental Teaching, Focused Learning, PO Box 5218, Derby DE73 1YZ. email: Fax: 01332 862993.

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