Branching out

11th November 2011 at 00:00
Bad behaviour was rife at Thornlie Primary, and the grounds were a graffiti-daubed mess. But a project that involved pupils in transforming their outdoor spaces changed everything.

It's not easy to turn a bad school around. Giving pupils a voice in decision-making helps, says David Hughes, headteacher at Thornlie Primary in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire. But adult guiding hands are needed too: "If you just ask kids what they want, they'll say swimming pools and helicopter pads.

"Seven years ago our school grounds were a mess. We had loads of space but it was empty and unattractive. We had vandalism, broken windows, graffiti, drinking in the school grounds. We were running at two exclusions a day, the highest in our authority."

Creating a cohesive community was the distant destination and the environment was the vehicle he chose to take them there. But the new head just picking things from a catalogue to make it pretty wasn't going to work, he realised. "So we set up a democratic process: `Here's the budget. What do you want? Where do you want it to go?' We got older pupils working with younger ones and explaining things to them.

"See that greenhouse?" He indicates a tall, transparent structure just outside the window, made of hundreds of clear plastic bottles. "The Primary 7s built that. We've got murals all round the school that children designed and painted. So older kids around here don't vandalise the school now because they did the work, or it's got their wee sister's name on it."

It all took time, and the first attempt to make Thornlie a great place for kids met with disaster, he says. "I took a cross-section of them out to research good playgrounds and come back with ideas. Then we had playground games painted on the tarmac. They were ripped up in a week. I remember thinking, `What am I going to tell the kids?'"

But they had seen it themselves and their reaction took him by surprise, he says. "They were tough. They were insulted. They told me to get the papers in."

A sad story in the local newspaper wrung remorse from one young vandal, whose apology to the whole school had "a couple of adults in the hall crying". The journey had begun. A bunch of scattered individuals were now facing roughly in the same direction.

"Our classes had been disconnected from each other," says Mr Hughes. "We wanted to build confidence and connection with whole-school vehicles that would bind classes together, have P7s working with P1s, get everyone knowing each other and what we were working towards."

Attainment and attendance went up every year, he says. "If you push kids in terms of textbooks, sums and levels you will improve results. But it can all crumble when they leave. But whole-school work binds you together. It gets kids speaking, reading and writing in meaningful contexts."

The momentum increased a year-and-a-half ago when Thornlie won a major award from Grounds for Learning and began working with them to develop the grounds and train the teachers (see box).

"It's about putting children in situations where they have to think, make judgments, test themselves as a team-player, a leader, a speaker, a thinker," says Mr Hughes. "Your first step is the immediate environment, then your community, then the global environment."

You aim to create a sense of possibility in the mind of every child, he says. "It's getting them thinking about people and their place in the world, their ability to make a difference. If I want a better playground and I think about it and work with a team, I can make a better playground.

"If I think there should be a ramp in an orphanage in Georgia and I work towards that, I can make it happen. If nothing else occurs here, they get that sense of possibility and take it with them into adult life.

"But that's enough from me," he says. "I've some children here who want to show you what we've been doing."

Outside, around the school, the impact of Thornlie's grounds takes time to be fully felt, growing as each new corner is turned and more richness reveals itself. "This used to be a big slab of concrete, with a bit of grass," says Katelyn Kenmuir (P7), indicating the front playground with its murals, buried tyres, adventure trail and tall tree on its side.

"Get down Melissa," David Moon (P4) shouts to a slightly-built young classmate who has tripped lightly up the tree. "We're supposed to be showing them around."

"The first thing we got was the Trim Trail," Katelyn goes on. "That's this big nature-trail thing, with obstacles made of wood and rope to challenge us. Then the janitor put these tyres in, so we could run up and jump off.

"Over there is the golf course we made in memory of our school secretary, who sadly passed away. She loved golf and wildlife, so pupils painted all the animals you get in Scotland and her family came and opened it for us."

"Hey Katelyn, you're doing all the talking," David shouts over his shoulder, as he swings expertly across a rope-bridge. "Give us a chance.

"We play on this most days," he goes on. "You try not to fall off or you get eaten by sharks. We're an eco-school and have three green flags already. Our eco-committee is called Thornlie Planet Savers because we're saving the planet."

P2 teacher Katrina Donnelly joins the expedition and leads the way to the golf hole, explaining how the murals took creative input from many children. "Each piece of the picture was drawn by a different pupil, then I projected it using the overhead projector and they traced around it, then painted it.

"I was out of class a lot last year, working with the children on the developments funded by Grounds for Learning."

Behind the school, the grounds open out into a complex, landscaped area, with willow tunnels, planted trees, big grassy steps, a large sandpit, a log circle and an elegant wooden gazebo.

The gazebo doubles as an outdoor classroom and place to play, explains Katelyn. "You can sing songs here, do measuring or circle time and learn skills you normally learn in the classroom. Our teachers want to make it fun for us."

Rainbow-coloured high steps, like a piece from a pyramid, form the "quiet corner", designed initially as a place to chat, but transformed by two large speakers on the wall into a dance venue. "I painted the steps orange, yellow, green, white and blue," says Melissa. "Boys come here too. They dance and jump around."

It's already lunchtime and Thornlie's pupils are out in the grounds, exploring, running, jumping on logs, climbing along trails, building new worlds in the grassy slopes and hollows, or inside the sandpit from a store of tiles, bricks, lengths of wood and pieces of pipe.

"I've got to go now," David excuses himself. "I've a game of zombies with my pals at this time."

There is energy and excitement here and little heads fizzing with imagination. It's clearly a wonderful place for children to play. But it's about more than play, says Mrs Donnelly - or rather play itself is underestimated.

"The training we got from Grounds for Learning showed how much learning there is in play, right up the school. So we're now encouraging staff to observe their own classes playing out here and note down the experience and outcomes they see. It's amazing what you learn when you watch children at play."

The value of what's been done at Thornlie is clearly measurable now, says Mr Hughes, in terms of attainment, attendance, behaviour - no exclusions last year - and school ethos. But it wasn't always so.

"In education you often can't prove cause and effect. We are giving the kids experiences that are good in themselves. Results go up for the majority but it's not all about results.

"It's very important to believe in what you're doing and to know that providing children with these experiences at this time is the right thing to do."


Play is not traditionally given much value in Scottish education, says Grounds for Learning programme manager Alastair Seaman. "It's seen as important only in early years. Teachers get no play training and it's often thought of as childish.

"But our project with Thornlie Primary shows that play can have a massive impact on school life, learning, behaviour, attendance, ethos, attainment and achievement."

Funded by Inspiring Scotland's Go Play scheme and organised by Grounds for Learning, the Natural Play project worked with eight schools around Glasgow and North Lanarkshire.

"In the application we wrote about what we had been doing and what we wanted to do," says Thornlie headteacher David Hughes.

"We spoke about wanting to see running, jumping, climbing, teamwork, den- building, digging, tool-work, woodwork, planting and growing. I assumed the top award of pound;30,000 would go to a secondary."

The Thornlie proposal was just what they were looking for, says Mr Seaman. "So they won the top award and we worked with the whole school community - teachers, parents and pupils - to develop an exciting vision. We brought in a really good play designer (Judi Legg of Playlink), supervised construction and delivered training to teachers.

"We went in with diggers and created mounds, dips and hollows. We put in a firepit, big trees, willow domes and a sandpit. We have made big changes to the physical fabric.

"There's also the loose materials, such as straw bales, branches and poles, bits of drainpipe and all manner of stuff that children will play with in creative ways, if you give them the chance."

The first reaction to all this can sometimes be resistance, says Mr Seaman. "Here we have a school that had the highest exclusion rate in North Lanarkshire and we're giving adolescent boys big sticks to run around with at playtime. It's not the obvious thing to do."

But the right groundwork can transform a school, he says. "You train the staff. You work with parents to explain the value and challenges. You demonstrate how we as adults can make children safe while giving them responsibility and freedom to learn.

"That's what play can powerfully do."

Grounds for Learning

Inspiring Scotland


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