New primary grows from green seeds

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Necessity appears to have fathered an invention in East Renfrewshire. The council's headteachers spent two days last week with politicians, planners, education officers and experts from farther afield discussing how to build an environmentally correct "eco-school".

Jim Fletcher, East Renfrewshire's education convener, envisages a school "in complete harmony with pupils, staff, parents, the community, learning and teaching, and with the environment".

Scotland's first purpose-built eco-school would be a Pounds 4 million replacement for Mearns primary in Newton Mearns. But if the project goes ahead it will partly be because of the area's unique circumstances.

The "white flight" out of Glasgow has put pressure on school rolls and pushed up property values. Rather than replace the 500-pupil Mearns primary with two costly buildings on land worth Pounds 500,000 an acre, the council is to create Scotland's biggest primary on a greenfield site with a projected roll of 947 pupils by 2007.

The idea does not just reflect educational ambition. It has political drive behind it from Owen Taylor, the East Renfrewshire council leader, who is national spokesman on sustainable development for the local authorities. "If we damage the environment, we damage ourselves," Mr Taylor says.

Mr Fletcher believes strongly that a large school built on environmental and educational principles will require a curricular rethink. But John Wilson, the council's head of quality development, warns that it must not be "a sterile curriculum in a sterile environment".

Eleanor Currie, the director of education, is reluctant to dispense a firm prescription before consulting parents and staff. But the school is likely to have facilities not always found in the primary sector - science and technology rooms, information technology facilities, music or drama studio and interactive facilities for modern languages.

The enterprise was endorsed by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, who commended "the planting of green seeds in children's minds". Mr Wilson called on schools to act as "models of good practice in reuse, recycling, and energy conservation".

But while East Renfrewshire is talking up the project, it is keen to play down charges of elitism. John Wilson said: "The new school must not be seen as a flagship to which other schools cannot live up." Any changes must also be transferrable to other primaries.

Karen Waugh, headteacher of Mearns primary, said the additional facilities would make a difference but much of what lies behind the eco-school concept is already covered in environmental studies. "It's not all new," she said.

Hugh Dougherty, a council public relations manager, said the message to the community, parents and staff is "one of reassurance that this is not so new that it hurts".

The prospect that the building may not be used to its full educational potential if, as seems likely, it is funded through the private finance initiative (now renamed public-private partnerships) has been raised by the council's head of quality development. "We may not be able to promote the council's policies on lifetime learning," John Wilson said. "If I was the private operator, I might not be too willing to let the building out to the education authority outwith the school day because I know I would be able to improve my revenue stream by bringing in other activities."

But if private cash may have a limiting effect, ecologically sound schools are intended to be liberating. Bill Coyle, the East Renfrewshire-based expert on school timetabling and performance, says the council is considering incorporating eco principles into all schools. The key features are "functionality, flexibility and durability".

The most important of these was flexibility to take account of an ever changing curriculum, Mr Coyle said. "Ten years ago there was no information technology."

Stuart Robertson, the HMI who leads the Government's superhighways initiative, said the increasingly sophisticated ability to communicate electronically, including video conferencing, would have its own impact on the curriculum of the next century. That would have to be taken into account.

Blueprint for a sustainable school

* Comply with education and management brief, ie vision.

* Reflect building style of the surrounding area, ie domestic scale.

* Interact with the natural environment in landscape terms.

* Encourage walking and cycling rather than use of cars.

* Use natural and renewable materials.

* Minimise energy use.

* Minimise waste production.

* Incorporate security and defensible space in design.

* Separate pedestrian and vehicular movements.

* Permit joint use of facilities including open spaces.

* Ensure interior design uses natural and renewable materials.

Source: Environment Department, East Renfrewshire Council

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