Birds are a central part of life at Wearhead Primary School, County Durham, from the feeding station that is loaded by the children with nuts and seeds to the iron jackdaws they made to keep guard over a more conventional bird table. So when the school was chosen to take part in a Creative Partnerships project called the Best Bird Box in Britain, second in charge and arts co-ordinator Liz Gill jumped at the chance. "We felt it was going to be a good one for our children," she says. "They are very aware of birds because of their rural lifestyle."
One of the smallest and remotest schools in England, located close to the Cumbrian border, the stone building is home to house martins. Pheasants often strut across the playground and even a heron drops in occasionally.
Springtime brings swallows and jackdaws are regular visitors.
All their feathered friends appear in pictures, stories, books and a textile map which the 22 junior children in the 34-pupil school created as part of an earlier bird project. But the invitation to be part of the Best Bird Box initiative has taken their design and technology skills to a new level, giving them the chance to work on a functional piece of public art with architect Angus Morrogh-Ryan of London-based practice De Matos Storey Ryan.
It began with the children heading 35 miles down the dale to Durham to view the site on a peninsula of the river Wear where the bird box design will be located. With Mr Morrogh-Ryan, they learned about the habitat and the types of birds likely to nest there, including spotted flycatchers, tawny owls and stock doves.
As well as collecting research samples, the pupils quizzed environmental officers and members of the project team as part of their investigations.
An added bonus of the interviews was that they provided copy for the young journalists in Year 6 who have written about the project in their termly newspaper. Back in school, under Mr Morrogh-Ryan's guidance, groups of children made models of the designs begun in workshops during their trip to the city. One was for a 40-metre-high nesting box built in the shape of a bird and lit from the inside to stand in the Wear.
"It was a lovely idea but not really feasible," says Mrs Gill. "It was great to see what they came up with. They are practical children with a very realistic view of the world. This was a way of bringing out their creative sides and encouraging them to use their imagination, and they did have some wonderful ideas."
Working with the architect also helped to underline the important role of good design and planning in design and technology.
"Normally the constrictions of the timetable mean that in DT you plan something, then make it. This particular project has helped the children to understand the concept of having a good design, making a prototype, thinking about materials and going through every stage an architect or designer goes through before something is actually made."
Mrs Gill explains: "Instead of each group continuing to work on their own design, we denied them ownership by moving them on to a different group's model. This made sure they had to articulate their ideas well on paper so the next group could understand them, and made them think how they could change and improve on someone else's ideas." Prototypes included a boat, a tower made of transparent, non-reflective material and the model the children eventually voted for - a series of boxes in different shapes and sizes.
"Because of the way each group worked on each model, the final design was a whole-class effort. It meant everyone had ownership and this got over the problem of some children saying 'our design was picked so it's the best'
and the others losing interest," says Mrs Gill. Mr Morrogh-Ryan's interpretation of the model was unveiled to the children this week and the "real" bird boxes are now being made before being put into position on the riverbanks. It is hoped the Durham City Arts project, in partnership with Creative Partnerships Durham Sunderland, Commissions North, County Durham Bird Recorder and Northern Architecture, will encourage more visitors onto the walkways of the Wear.