Green and pleasant land

1st June 2001 at 01:00
To some pupils, the environment is something you learn about in science or geography. But the children of West Ashtead primary school in Surrey are aware that the environment is all around them. The school is taking part in Exxon Mobil's Greener Grounds initiative and is now building a nature trail as part of its pound;50,000 playground redevelopment.

Joe Sexton from Year 4 says: "I think there should be more people trying to save the environment. His friend, Ella Simms, adds: "The more the merrier. People should cut down less trees. The more people get involved in nature the better."

Exxon Mobil, better known in the UK as Esso, regards its business link as part of a good neighbour policy. Earlier this year, the oil company invited teachers from schools near its Leatherhead headquarters to attend a meeting at which senior executives offered an outline of the environmental package. West Ashtead submitted a bid and has so far been awarded pound;400 to spend on gardening equipment.

Last year, the headteacher, Ray Anderson, and a group of pupils took part in an millennium project sponsored by Exxon Mobil, Trees of Time and Place, in which children planted saplings of native species at a local arboretum.

This year, the school has a "greener" feel. Helen Fellowes is the Year 5 teacher, and her double doors open on to what will soon be flower beds, a small copse and an experimental touch-and-smell garden area. There will also be a "mini-beast" environment, where children can discover insects, and where feeders will be used to attract wild birds.

"I'm not your typical green fingers, but I've been reading up on the sort of plants we need," says Ms Fellowes. "I'm creating an outdoor classroom." This hands-on aproach has sparked an interest in gardening as pupils have watched their seeds become mature plants and young saplings.

Proud of the poppies that have burst into bloom, Katy Warren of Year 6 says: "You can make anything out of papr and cardboard, but when you grow a flower from seed you're giving life to it." Her classmate Rebecca Kyriacou agrees: "My gran gave up trying to plant flowers because whenever she does, they die," she says. "People think it's quite boring to do planting, but when I start to do it, I get into it and I really enjoy it."

Richard Bannister brought his potted beech tree into tree assembly last autumn. It has not only survived but grown a lot bigger.

"I grew it in some of my mum's compost, and I just keep it in the garden," he says. "It's been raining a lot so I haven't needed to do anything much to it." Later, when the landscape gardeners return with topsoil, Richard's tiny sapling will become part of a copse.

This summer, the ground improvements that began life on a drawing board - when parents, teachers and children were asked to draw up a wish-list of outside features they wanted at school - will finally take shape. A low brick wall, which doubles as seating for children, skirts a green tarmac play area and behind the low wall, banks of earth will be dressed with topsoil and seeded to become wild areas that contain nature trails. The success of the whole scheme was due to parent fundraising being matched by environmental charity.

Most of the work was carried out by local contractors, but went way beyond the call of duty. WS Atkins, a consulting engineer based in Epsom, landscaped the school grounds at cost price and put in a lot of work unpaid. Barratt Homes, which is building houses near the school, will lend a hand and a digger to excavate a school pond and will provide fencing for a safe area where children can carry out supervised pond dipping.

Rebecca has the final word: "I live near Epsom Downs, and when I go to places like London I feel a bit upset because places where there could be countryside have been covered in concrete," she says. "There are too many buildings looking the same."

Stephen Hoare

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