From dump to discrete space

25th January 2008 at 00:00
What is happening on the banks of Loch Lomond? Jean McLeish finds a BBC project bringing a breath of fresh air to schools.

Their school is on the shores of Loch Lomond in the heart of a national park, but the children at Arrochar Primary are short of green spaces to play and they can't see the loch for the weeds.

It seems a strange irony for parents at the small country school, some of whom moved from big cities to raise their children on the world famous bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

But the parent teachers association is rising to the challenge and, thanks to the BBC's Breathing Places project, is transforming derelict land next to the school into a garden haven for wildlife where children can play. Once they've done that, they want to clear the overgrown shrubs to restore the stunning views of the loch.

"It's going to be absolutely fantastic. Hopefully, we will have an outside classroom, an area for active learning," says Alison Palmer, headteacher. "It will help cover all sorts of areas of the curriculum. We are going to be doing an enterprise topic like a garden centre, growing plants and selling them."

A dedicated team of PTA members is masterminding the project: "Over a number of years this little bit of ground has just been used as a dumping ground. Lots and lots of weeds were growing and you could hardly see what was in there," says Fiona Jackson, treasurer and mother of three. "The green places around the school, pupils are not allowed to go in unsupervised, and they go for nature walks in the woods supervised, so there's no discrete place to access and play."

The Breathing Places project seemed to provide a perfect opportunity for the PTA to provide a safe space for the youngsters and the community. And when they learned they had been awarded pound;10,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to start work, they couldn't believe their luck.

"We spent a long time filling in the application form and consulted the community and the kids and they came up with lots of ideas. To our surprise, a small PTA with a turnover of pound;1,000 each year was given pound;10,000. We felt so happy, jubilant," says Mrs Jackson.

Work is well underway, clearing and landscaping the council-owned area which will be formally opened this summer, providing a butterfly garden, hedgehog and birdhouses, raised beds for growing salad leaves and vegetables with a covered decking area for rainy days.

The school at the foot of Ben Lomond is at the heart of this community, and parents are keen for local organisations and older people to be drawn into the school through the new amenity. As well as providing a teaching resource for the school, it's also hoped a covered bandstand area with easily accessible walkways will become a venue for music and arts events.

Eventually, vegetables and salad will be provided for the school canteen and kitchen waste will be re-cycled for compost. Local people and businesses have donated time and products to the venture and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park has backed the effort and taken children to gather seeds and acorns for planting.

Euan Furness, 10, from P6 is a keen gardener and is enthusiastic about the project: "It's a good thing. It's a great idea to allow more wildlife. Before, that ground was no use for anything, it was a waste."

The Arrochar Primary School project is one of hundreds of similar ventures funded through the Big Lottery small grants scheme at schools and communities throughout the UK. A total of pound;10 million is being invested in creating new Breathing Places, a partnership project between the BBC and a range of conservation organisations.

The first phase of the campaign started in 2005 and distributed pound;5 million to fund 650 Breathing Places. Successful applicants who have bid for the next pound;5 million will be announced this summer. The closing date for applications for grants was January 18.

While it is too late to apply for funding to develop further Breathing Places, a new phase of the campaign is being launched now. Breathing Places Schools will be announced in a mail shot to primary schools throughout the UK this week.

This latest schools project invites pupils to Do One Thing a term over the next two years, starting with a planting theme this term, a mini-beasts focus in the summer term and feeding animals next winter.

Schools can register to take part online and will be provided with a welcome activity pack, which will include stickers and seeds to get started. They can sign up for a newsletter and there will be opportunities for other activities on the website.

Sophie Duncan, learning executive for Breathing Places, says: "We have created what I hope will be a nice opportunity for children and teachers to work together to do small activities, to do one thing a term in their school grounds to make a difference for wildlife and to encourage children's appreciation and engagement with wildlife.

"If they want to do more, our partners have lots of other things they can do to build on the one thing they have done that term."

To make sure the campaign is right for Scottish schools and wildlife, some aspects will be geared specifically for them, says Alastair Lavery of RSPB Scotland, who is co-ordinating the campaign here. "We will be using broadcasting and the website to give schools the information they need to transform school grounds into places where wildlife can thrive and for everyone to enjoy while learning more.

"There hasn't been a better time to change your school for the better or to tackle the Eco Schools Biodiversity module."

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