School grounds should double as neighbourhood ecological parks, says landscape designer Michael Littlewood. He describes his eco-vision of the future to Jonathan Croall. Just over two years ago, the border of Ladysmith First School in the suburbs of Exeter was nothing but a long raised mound of grass, hidden behind a row of war-time buildings. Today it is a nature conservation garden; a rich landscape of trees, ponds, flowers and plants that provides a wonderful outdoor classroom for the school's 600 pupils.
There are sympathetic man-made structures: a bridge which crosses a meandering stream fed by rainwater off the playgroup roof; a large communal wooden seat for small groups; and two circular boarded areas with room for 30 and fringed by chestnut logs, used for story-tellingdancing,music and other activities.
The garden, the largest in a Devon first school, has be-come reality through the vision of headteacher Jen Cart- wright, and the school's collabora-tion with landscape designer Michael Littlewood, who believes schools have enormous but often untapped potential as ecological, educational and community resources.
"Schools need to look in a more holistic way at developing their grounds and buildings," he says. "Often they just create a pond or a green strip tucked away in a corner, or improve the school entrance, rather than look at the wider potential of the whole site."
His own ecological vision is a school forest landscape fully exploited for school and community use. Grounds would become a self-sustaining eco-system modelled on a natural woodland, where the principles of conservation, re-cycling and energy efficiency could be put into practice.
His blueprint includes a roof garden, solar panels, rainwater channels, greenhouses, a herb garden, reed beds, an edible hedge, a wetland area, a windmill, a woodstore and many other features, all designed to reduce costs, conserve resources, provide habitats for wildlife, and produce fresh food.
"Children, especially those who live in cities, don't get much chance to see how food is grown, or how trees are planted, cut down, and turned into fuel," he says. "All too often they've lost touch with nature: we need to give them more chance to learn about it and respect it."
In addition to their value for cross-curricular work, he envisages such grounds becoming "neighbourhood ecological parks" which would provide a "nourishing" environment for members of the local community.
But how can such an eco-vision for tomorrow square with the reality of schools today, where budgets are tight and teachers are grappling with ever-heavier workloads?
At Hartcliffe College in Bristol Michael Littlewood has created designs for turning a 65-acre site - housing a tertiary college, a comprehensive school and a primary school - into a Centre for Regenerative Studies, where a raft of environmentally-sound ideas can be tested in an educational setting.
"We want to transform what is at the moment a green desert," says the college's head Tony Turner. "But in order to develop this kind of thing you need not just ideas, but cash." With Pounds 20,000 raised from trusts and industry, a full-time worker has just been appointed for a year to canvass ideas from pupils, staff, parents, and the community.
Ladysmith School decided to go ahead despite warnings from some local authority officials that the scheme wouldn't work, or that it would be too dangerous for children. Parents, on the other hand, were bursting with enthusiasm, and often impatient about the pace of progress. "I had to convince them you couldn't just buy in a JCB and start digging," Jen Cartwright says.
Parental and staff volunteer help was crucial - the garden would have cost Pounds 25,000 to create professionally. Aided by various trusts, the school managed it for Pounds 9,000, with the labour done by teams of parents and teachers. Even the children took part in discussions about what should go in the garden; both the bridge and the stream were their idea.
Five children from Year 3 escorted me round the garden, each showing off a special place, a particular patch from which they can draw, paint, do a piece of writing, catch the sound of the water, or just watch the changing colours and shapes of the plants and flowers through the seasons.
Aside from its purely educational value, the garden fulfils another, less predictable function. "It's very good emotionally for children," says teacher Lyn Gray. "If they've had too much of everything, you sit and give them a story, and they calm down."
Children with special needs benefit particularly in this way. And Jen Cartwright is sure that the garden has had a positive effect on Ladysmith's ethos. "It's begun to consolidate an atmosphere of respect and care around the school," she says.
uMichael Littlewood is co-author, with Joan Wood, of A Guide to the Management and Maintenance of School Grounds, published earlier this year by Learning Through Landscapes in association with English Nature (Pounds 10.95, plus Pounds 1.25 postage).
uLearning Through Landscapes is at Third Floor, Southside Offices, The Law Courts, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9DL. Tel: 01962 846258
PLANNING AHEAD * Make sure you know why you want to develop your school grounds in a particular way, and that you're not simply creating a pond or a wildflower meadow because the school down the road has one, or because you think it will make your school more attractive.
* Check as early as possible on important legal questions: does your school own the land in question? Does it own other land? (One school discovered it had owned a nearby three-acre forest for 40 years.) Who owns the boundaries? Do you need to consider a right of way or a tree-preservation order?
* Make sure there is group commitment. Avoid the situation where one enthusiastic teacher is left to get on with their pet scheme: be sure to share the plans at the earliest possible moment with parents, governors, other staff, and the school's immediate neighbours.
* Create a small group of people willing to take responsibility for the different tasks involved. These might include fund-raising, arranging publicity, collating information about the site, acting as a focus for communication between all the groups involved.
* Don't expect this part of the process to be speedy - it can take six or seven times as long as the implementation stage. The advantage of this is that it will allow plenty of time for those involved to be kept up to date with progress.