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23rd June 2000 at 01:00
One Yorkshire school has constructed its own micro-river. Diana Hinds explains

Ken Dunn is a no-holds-barred geography teacher, for whom every scruffy or neglected part of the school grounds offers itself as an opportunity for an imaginative project.

Soon after he was appointed head of geography at Royston High school, near Barnsley, Yorkshire, five-and-half years ago, he decided that the courtyard outside the geography room could be put to better use.

"It was just a soggy, uninspiring patch of grass. I wanted to transform it into an outdoor geography classroom and build a micro-river system there, powered by renewable energy; a streamway, with running water, so that we could actively show water moving in a channel and show how sediment is moved downstream."

He submitted plans to the Learning Through Landscapes Urban Challenge and was rewarded with a grant of pound;1,300. He garnered further support from the Leeds Environment Agency and British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and soon had a third-year student from Sheffield University working on a feasibility study.

The end result, which is used by pupils from primary to GCSE age, is a circular running stream, with a wind turbine and two solar panels powering a battery pack to pump the water. The landscaping is both educational and attractive, ranging from alpine rock plants at the river's "source" to moorland gorse and broom, with marine plants and grasses at its mouth. Pupils maintain the courtyard and also use it as a collection point for the school's recycling scheme.

"If you empower young people with projects like this, they cannot help but develop the sense of stewardship in looking after everything," says Ken Dunn.

An enthusiastic world traveller, two years ago he won the chance to spend 17 days as a scientific field assistant in the Brazilian rainforest, as part of the Earthwatch Millennium award scheme. He was working in a rainforest fragment, where 96 per cent of the forest has been lost to agriculture, helping to assess whether the forest could still sustain its diversity of wildlife. Much of his time was spent hunting out miniature coconuts and other foods for a species of fruit-eating pigs called peccaries.

"It was an enriching and invigorating few weeks and I came back with a much, much reater appreciation of land-use pressures and of the biodiversity of the rainforest," he says.

Inspired by the beauty of the different rainforest woods, one of his schemes on his return was to hire a sculptor to work with pupils on a dead ash tree in the school grounds, creating out of it a six-foot rampant lion, which now stands at one of the school entrances. Impressed, too, by the rapid rate of growth of rainforest vegetation, he and pupils have planted a coppice of fast-growing willow in a corner of the playing field and begun to experiment with willow sculpture. An "Eiffel Tower" in willow is y taking shape outside the French room and there are plans for pupils from feeder primary schools to bring their own willow cuttings with them when they transfer to Royston High.

Another crucial element in the greening of the school has been the formation of a school environment council, with members from each year group, which meets every week. Recently the council has been working on an energy survey, making a reckoning of all unnecessary light usage in the school. Council members were also very active in a project to landscape the school's front yard, with funding from a Barclays New Futures award, transforming a bleak stretch of tarmac into a pleasant area of trees, shrubs and wooden seats.

"I'm a firm believer that environment affects performance," says Ken Dunn, now promoted to school development manager. "The school has seen a dramatic increase in A-C passes at GCSE and I would like to think that improving the school grounds has helped to give students a greater sense of worth."

"The improvements make you feel more comfortable and you can talk about your school better," says Elizabeth Green, 14, an environment council member.

"It gives you a sense of achievement," adds Arthur Alan, 15, also on the council, "because you know you've done something to help your school look better."

Ken Dunn's plans for Royston High do not end here. A kiln for converting willow into charcoal and a larger volume of water in the micro-river to simulate flood events are among his latest ideas, as well as the dream of a wind turbine to generate power for the school.

Further details from Ken Dunn, Royston High School, Yorkshire, Station Road, Royston, Barnsley S71 4EQ

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