More than a coat of paint

14th October 2005 at 01:00
A radical makeover of the gym has heralded an attitude shift at a Newcastle school, says David Bocking

Imagine sharing your school's sports hall with Kieron Dyer, or other local sports heroes. "I was speechless," says Stephanie Young. "I couldn't believe it." Since September, Stephanie, 15, has been taking PE lessons alongside several members of Newcastle United FC and Newcastle Falcons RFC, as well as stars from the city's basketball, ice hockey and netball teams.

"It was quite a surprise when we got back to school," says Stephanie Sharp, also 15. "People were quite excited about it." Which was exactly the idea.

The sports hall of Norham Community Technology College in North Shields, Newcastle, hadn't been decorated for at least 15 years, says teacher Keith Page. "The local term is 'minging'. It was filthy and horrible."

But at the start of the autumn term, Norham's PE students were greeted by dozens of Newcastle's finest sportsmen and women in the throes of sporting achievement in football, tennis, basketball, rugby, ice hockey, netball, cycling and athletics, all shining down from huge murals replacing the old muddy purple paint on the walls of the school's sports hall.

Keith Page teaches maths and languages at Norham, and 18 months ago he was given the job of setting up an environmental task force for students, mainly to tackle the school's problems with litter and graffiti. The "Environ Flippin' Mental" group is run by a committee of students with a determination to improve the school's image among pupils and local residents. The majority of Norham's pupils come from the adjoining Meadowell council estate, described in government statistics 10 years ago, says Keith Page, as "the most socio-economically deprived estate in Europe".

The local population has multi-generational unemployment and multi-generational single-parent families, Keith adds, and more than half of Norham's pupils are on free school meals. "A lot of money has been spent on it, but this is still a tough estate," he says. "The rationale for the environmental group was the huge problem with vandalism, graffiti and litter, and the negative image that goes with all those things in the community."

Sixteen keen pupils formed the Environ Flippin' Mental committee, and started coming up with ideas to improve the local environment: the "Bin it to win it" scheme, for example, whereby anyone spotted by a teacher putting litter in a bin receives a raffle ticket for a weekly prize draw (a packet of biscuits or multipack of sweets is the usual prize).

But when the committee sought the views of fellow pupils, the most popular request for environmental improvement was to do something about the school gym. "It used to be bland and scruffy and it used to make you sick to go in there," says Stephanie Young, a member of the committee. "The school community decided the sports hall should be the main idea," adds fellow committee member Kevin Dixon (16). "It needed a complete revamp."

The environmental committee came up with the idea of using murals depicting sports for the gym walls, including pictures of local sports clubs.

Individuals are a bit more tricky due to the issue of image rights, explains Keith Page, so many of the sportspeople had to be painted with abstract faces. The exception is Kieron Dyer, whose agent gave Norham permission to use the Newcastle United player's image (but students are convinced the player behind him is Alan Shearer, he adds.

The PE department suggested using key GCSE words from the PE curriculum alongside the sports action scenes, so the gym walls cry out words like Flexibility, Fitness, Power, Strength, Stamina, Agility and Reaction in evocative graffiti script. The green background was funded by the school's redecoration budget and the money for the mural painting came from North Tyneside council's anti-graffiti office, which saw the idea as a way to turn a team of local graffiti artists onto the path of legal artwork.

The artists worked for nothing to build up their portfolio, and are now touting for work in other schools and public buildings; on the strength of the Norham sports hall, they've already got another commission at a nearby library. The murals had an immediate effect on sports lessons, says Norham's head of PE, Alan Cappleman. "When the first dozen students went in to look, they said it was 'lush'. It used to be a dull sports hall, where students were just going in and there was no appeal, no interest, so the murals have had a massive positive effect. Kids want to feel comfortable and at home, and this gives them a feeling of belonging in the school."

The depiction of local teams helps students feel a sense of personal involvement, and the inclusion of unfamiliar sports and the invitation to work out the swirling sports words has helped in learning, says Alan Cappleman. "It might not work in a modern sports hall, but I'd strongly recommend this idea to any schools with a gym that needs a new coat of paint."

The project has also helped motivate children to join in the school's environmental work, says Keith Page. Since the Environ Flippin' Mental group has been in operation, vandalism is down and litter significantly reduced. "We used to regularly get broken windows: in February 2004, for example, we had eight broken windows in two days, which cost pound;640.

But over the last 18 months, we've lost five windows."

And litter has fallen from 11 bags collected from the school yard in one week in March 2004, to four and half bags per week now.

"It's quite exciting, because people are saying if we can do that with the sports hall, there are other ideas to come from other people around the school," says Kevin Dixon. "And if young ones coming through see us doing things that are good for the school, hopefully it will encourage them to do the same. This is just the beginning."

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