In the first of a series focusing on schools' preparations for the millennium, Aleks Sierz reports on how the onset of the 21st century has spurred a once-failing school to transform its environment
YOU'D expect some children to be involved in planning their school's millennium project, but having three-year-olds on the committee must be a record. Rough Hay junior is no ordinary school - it hit the headlines when it became one of the first to fail an OFSTED inspection and almost broke records for time spent in special measures.
Now, says head Janet Taylor, "The main thing we'll be doing for the millennium is improving the school environment." She's been at the school for two years and says "its reputation was rough by name and rough by nature, so we're working hard to change people's perception of it".
Rough Hay "got savaged in the press because it was one of the first to fail. What we now need is real change and not just cosmetics," says Janet Taylor. At the moment, the school has 320 pupils - nursery to Year 6 - although in September it will become a primary. Located in Darlaston, West Midlands, part of Walsall LEA, it's in "an area of great deprivation".
Built in 1940, the school has recently suffered neglect, says Janet Taylor. But a successful bid for a grant to improve the grounds led to links with the Walsall Millennium Project, the borough engineer and Groundwork Black Country - an environmental agency. "I released two teachers - Mary Pearson (reception) and Pete Mabon (Year 3) - for a day to do some planning with them."
They looked at the site and set up an Eco Committee of pupils, which started off with two nominated from each class, about 24 children. "But as some dropped out, others replaced them so now we have about 30, aged three upwards," says Janet Taylor. The committee worked with all members of staff and classes to raise awareness of environmental issues. "Committee members worked throughout their dinner times most days of the week and came up with a plan, then designed a model of the whole school and its grounds."
Supported by classwork, the model was the centrepiece of a display in the school hall and the local community was invited to view it. People filled in questionnaires about what could be done to improve the school and flags representing these ideas were put on the model. They included a mini-orchard, vegetable garden, flower borders, screening shrubs to hide the factories as well as an adventure play area and new playground markings.
"The information was put on a computer database," says the head, "and now we've got a wonderful architect's blueprint. We held special assemblies to inform the children. To start off, we chose the worst area, which was next to the dining room, because everybody sees and uses it.
"This will be transformed into a herb garden, with apple, plum and pear trees and shrubs. "We've had a launch day where every class was involved in tree-planting. If children right from nursery are involved, they feel a sense of ownership and the plants won't be vandalised."
Pete Mabon says: "The response was tremendous. Committee members have worked really hard on the project."
Other ideas include an aluminium can recycling plant, quiet playground areas and a swimming pool. Janet Taylor stresses that the school has "full community involvement in what we're doing. My teachers are very committed despite the pressures they've been under".
Tell us if your school is involved in an unusual millennium project: Contact Heather Neill, fax 0171 782 3200, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.