Let's start at the very beginning...

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Staff and pupils in the town of Milton Keynes are rising to the challenge of building school communities from scratch. Irena Barker reports

Photographs Tony Hardacre

WITH ITS endless roundabouts and sprawling housing estates, Milton Keynes will probably never make it into the top ten most trendy places. The comedian Bill Bailey once cruelly called it "Satan's Layby" a reference to a road system that most outsiders find impenetrable. But the jibes about the verdant Buckinghamshire new town have not deterred the stream of people keen to move there.

It may not have the post-industrial swagger of other booming places such as Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle, but it is the fastest growing in England. It is one of the centrepieces of the Government's Sustainable Communities project, once dubbed John Prescott's plan to "bulldoze the North and concrete the South".

Around 70,000 new homes will be built by 2030, doubling the population to around half a million. Already the bulldozers are moving onto rolling fields and gravel pits to create a brave new world of development. By 2016, there should be around 35,000 extra jobs. Three schools are built every year. Headteachers are grappling with the challenges of working in communities with very little or no history.

For Jane Miller, a local headteacher, the population surge is good news: the boom in pupil numbers means she will be able to build the new school kitchen and dining hall she longs for.

Middleton primary, on the eastern outskirts, was built in 2004 with capacity for 430 pupils from the housing estates in the neighbourhood of Middleton.

But those were the days before Jamie Oliver. Even cutting-edge schools could be designed without facilities for hot meals. Teachers and pupils have had to put up with cold sandwiches ever since.

The school lies next to the proposed site of one of the pioneering "Millennium Communities". The aim is to build seven housing schemes across Britain, providing "exemplar designs" for the sustainable, high-tech and socially mixed estates of the future. The first of 2,000 high-density homes will start going up on a 158-acre piece of Milton Keynes shrubland next spring.

Oakgrove, as the community will be known, will be a mix of luxury and affordable housing. Middleton primary's extension will take the strain of the new arrivals, who will come from socially diverse backgrounds. The buildings, which will open in September 2009, will take its capacity to 630.

"Each school evolves as it goes along. The expansion allowed us the chance to survey staff to find out what could be added or changed," said Mrs Miller, and we all agreed dining facilities would add to our quality of life."

Staff are proud of their quirky-looking school. Those who have been there since it opened feel their work is finally paying off. Starting from nothing, Mrs Miller said, allowed them to do their own thing. They have been able to experiment with ideas that may never have happened in a school of a more traditional construction.

The eye-catching school is made up of two long, curving buildings around a central drum-shaped sports hall. From above, it looks like an eye. Even on a dull day, the expanse of glass provides plenty of natural light.

The walls are painted calming cool greens and blues. A tank of tropical fish welcomes visitors to reception. On wet days the foundation year can still play outside, under a giant square canopy.

The playground and playing field have colourful giant pencils to stimulate play, there is a sensory garden and plenty of open space. The central courtyard is decorated with hanging baskets, and ivy climbs up the weathered, wood-clad walls.

Apart from the children themselves, the curvy corridors are Mrs Miller's pride and joy. She said that they encourage good behaviour and create an inclusive atmosphere.

"When you have a dead straight corridor, children are tempted to rush straight down it," she says, "but the bends create calm."

Creating calm has become a priority at Middleton. The school is a part of the Kaleidoscope project, which encourages well-being and self-confidence in pupils using colour therapy and light projections. There are aromatherapy burners in every room.

She may be biased, but Mrs Miller describes her pupils as "wonderful". They are a mixed bunch. Some are the children of the 5,000 workers at the Open University's headquarters nearby and there are Danish, Dutch and South African youngsters whose parents work at international companies in the area. This makes for some interesting parental contributions.

One parent works on the OU robotics squad and brought in a robot dog to show to foundation-class pupils. Other parents who had careers in top-level sports have been in to coach PE classes.

The school also caters for some disabled pupils, including a boy with Down's syndrome. The wide corridors and doorways are ideal for a pupil with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair.

Despite the harmonious atmosphere, Sats results are nothing to write home about yet, and Ofsted rated the school as only "satisfactory" last year. Mrs Miller is not too troubled about this, as the school received a "good" for care and personal development of pupils.

"When the inspection was done in 2006, we hadn't had a chance to properly influence attainment but had been focusing on the health and well-being of pupils. We felt this was the most important thing to start off with," she said.

Middelton has had its setbacks. It was scheduled to open in 2003, but the discovery of a colony of great crested newts delayed building. For a year, the school was housed in the former buildings of De Montfort university not far away. The pupils struggled with adult-sized toilets and furniture.

Mrs Miller, who was previously a deputy at a school in special measures, said: "Starting off with a brand new school has actually been more challenging. We started with a blank sheet and had to write every policy. We have only just been able to start 'growing our own' pupils.

"The newts held us back, as we had to bus very young pupils around. It wasn't an ideal situation."

Headships and teaching jobs in the area's many new schools are very popular. Mrs Miller said Milton Keynes and its schools have a pioneering atmosphere.

"Ambitious heads and teachers are attracted to brand new schools and it is a great chance to really make your mark, starting from nothing," she said. "What they may not realise is that it is the hardest thing they will ever do."

This year is the first she will not be working over the summer she has booked herself a well-deserved six weeks in Australia.

Her assistant head Rachel Davies said: "It's a challenge to open a new school. There is no history and no relationship with parents. You have to set the foundations for the years to come. It's hard, but exciting and a great opportunity."

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