For the Earth and our estate

16th September 2005 at 01:00
A Nottinghamshire primary school has become the heart of the local community, battling poverty and deprivation to provide opportunities and inspiration to young and old.

In the community cafe at Bowbridge primary school in Newark, Nottinghamshire, a group of women - parents and friends - were relaxing with cups of tea on a hot summer Wednesday.

They were ready for a rest because they had spent the morning white-water rafting on the canoe slalom course at Holme Pierrepoint water sport centre with David Dixon, the headteacher. Only a day or two before, Mr Dixon had returned from a weekend spent cycling coast to coast - Whitehaven to Sunderland - to raise money for books and playground equipment.

I was ready for a cup of tea myself because, although Newark is easy to find, at the crossroads of the A1 and the A46, homing in on Bowbridge when you get there is more difficult. It involved me in one of those stop-start, mobile phone-directed searches. ("Hello, I'm by a little park. Which way do I go now?") The trouble is that the Hawtonville Estate, which the school serves, is made up of what seems like a maze of identical streets with no identifiable focus.

People at the school confirmed my impression. "There's no real heart," was how one of the admin staff put it.

The area around the school is typical of so many in small towns and fringe urban areas. Below the radar of national politics in a way that the high-profile inner-city estates are not, they are shut off not only from the services and facilities of a city, but also beyond the reach of some of the urban funding streams.

"There's 9,000 people on this estate and no doctor, for example," says David Dixon. "This is the fifth most deprived council ward in Nottinghamshire, and the third for child poverty."

It is not true that there is no real heart, though. You do not have to be at Bowbridge for long before you realise that it is the school itself that is working to energise and organise the life that is undoubtedly out there in those streets.

So as well as the cafe, there is a community library, "wraparound" care for children, a nursery, and a community drama and sports hall which incorporates a film club. There is also an adult education programme with free courses supported by the European Social Fund, as well as nursery provision and a creche.

What Mr Dixon and his colleagues have created is, in effect, a "full-service" primary school. And they have done it on their own initiative and by their own efforts, without any official government programme.

"We've followed the logic," says Mr Dixon. "We looked to the basic needs of the children, to make them more receptive to the curriculum. The barriers have sometimes been lack of nutrition, not enough water, no breakfast. And then you think, why can't we engage with the parents in ways which will raise the profile of learning - through adult learning, for example?"

The family-friendly feeling is enhanced by the fact that the school has taken over its meals provision from the local authority. Freed from the overheads of a county-wide service, it now spends more money on each child's meal, and can also provide a lunch for local elderly people.

But community involvement and the extended school are only part of the Bowbridge story. Running all the way through life at the school is a strong commitment to ecological sustainability.

Carol Wilkinson, the school's business manager, runs an "E Team" of children - four from each class - which meets regularly to review energy and recycling policies and to monitor progress through the European Union's "Eco schools" award scheme. There is also an after-school "eco club" for children who want to spend more time on the issues.

"We already hold the silver award," says Mrs Wilkinson, "And we're working towards the Green Flag, which is the ultimate level. We talk about environmental issues, in line with the criteria for the Green Flag, and the team also does practical tasks like litter picking, turning off lights, taps, and encouraging everyone to bring in aluminium cans to recycle. We also collect paper and cardboard to recycle, and toner cartridges, old phones and clothes."

Outside, the grounds are well kept inside a security fence. Raised vegetable plots running in a line beside the school are looked after by the children, who choose what they are going to grow. Much of the produce from the plots finds its way not only into the school meals, but to an after-hours adult cookery group. "One of the parents this week said she'd enjoyed it - making things she had never made before and did not know how to," says Mrs Wilkinson.

This link between the vegetable plot and adult learning is just one of a number showing that sustainability and community are, for Mr Dixon, inextricably linked. Looking after the planet is important to children and staff, and is an area where the school can show leadership to its community.

"Through having sustainability as a strand through the curriculum, children appreciate the natural world and what they can do to save it," says Mr Dixon. "Then the school can be an exemplar, with the children influencing the families."

His vision does not seem to have limits. The school already provides laptops for children and families at low cost (or if necessary without charge) on an AAL ("Anytime Anywhere Learning") project. He is also working with Microsoft to provide a "virtual extended school" that will wireless-link homes with the school curriculum.

The real challenge at the moment, however, is making sure that the new building, which is scheduled for the school, is as "green" as possible.

"Ordinary rebuild standards aren't high," he says. "But we want to look for materials that aren't carbon-greedy, for example local materials from local quarries, and timber sourced from Britain."

A building like this, with all the "green" boxes ticked, will inevitably be more expensive than standard and Mr Dixon is seeking funding.

He is determined to succeed by one route or another. His drive to make Bowbridge into a true extended school, both partner and leader in the community, working to a sound ecological philosophy, already shows impressive results.

He says: "We've done it on a shoestring, by tweaking the budget and using volunteers and our own staff."

It is not all plain sailing, though. Mr Dixon points out that there are leadership issues, some of which he is exploring for a doctorate degree at the moment.

"You have to be truly open," he says, "able to accept ideas with a good grace from outside stakeholders. And that is a challenge for school leaders, who have to come down from their ivory towers."

See down to earth, a 16-page special on education for sustainable development in the tes this week IF YOU WANT TO DO IT THE BOWBRIDGE WAY

David Dixon and his team have received advice and material help from a range of sources. Some are local - the Newark and Sherwood primary care trust supported the school in setting up its own kitchen. Severn Trent Water - the water authority local to the school, helped some specific projects and provided advice on grounds maintenance.

* National and international sources of support for schools interested in broadening their remit on their own initiative include: Eco schools

The charity ContinYou exists to open up opportunities for people who have missed out on formal education.

Quality in Study Support, which helps schools and other organisations in their efforts to improve motivation and self-esteem

* Bowbridge school's website is at

* The Government's extended schools programme is explained at

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