Space invaders

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
While most rural schools face falling rolls and the threat of closure, in Cambourne the brand-new primary has a rather different problem: children - and lots of them

Buggies are conspicuous by their presence on the streets of Cambourne. But news of the Cambridgeshire village's distinction as the "fertility capital of the UK" still took many of its residents by surprise.

When Jeavons Wood Primary School opened its doors for the first time this September, a local radio journalist arrived, and then articles in the national press followed. When a reporter from an Italian newspaper arrived, it was clear it was a bigger story than "New school opens".

"I knew I was excited about the school opening but I didn't know why the rest of the world was," says Sarah Humphreys, Jeavons Wood's headteacher.

While many rural schools are under threat due to falling rolls, there's something reassuring about teaching in a village with one of the developed world's highest birth rates.

As it stands, Mrs Humphreys has 53 pupils, having gained a couple during the first few weeks of term. More are expected to join during the year. She is already anticipating recruiting another two teachers for next year.

At the end of the 1990s, Cambourne was a scattering of fields about 10 miles west of Cambridge. The only buildings were a farmhouse and its barns. The resulting decade has seen the creation from scratch of Great and Little Cambourne, about 3,300 homes altogether. Work is continuing apace on Upper Cambourne, with another 950 houses planned. The community is home to about 7,600 souls, expected to reach 10,000 by the time building work has finished.

But while its population has been steadily increasing, it's not all down to families relocating. According to Cambridgeshire County Council, the 12 months to March saw 210 babies born to people living in the village.

This baby boom has given Cambourne the highest birth rate in the UK. Its 24.1 births per 1,000 people is more than twice the national average, one of the highest in the developed world and higher even than India, Mexico and Brazil. Countries with higher rates, such as Ghana, the Philippines and Bangladesh, are those with a tradition of larger families or where contraception is not widely available. "It is noticeable, it really is," says Mrs Humphreys. "You see buggies everywhere."

Its rapidly expanding school-age population means that both Cambourne's primaries, the Vine and Monkfield Park, were full last year. About a dozen children had to be bussed to the nearby village of Hardwick, just over four miles away.

Although Jeavons Wood had been in the pipeline for some time, it is housed in a temporary building. The land has been loaned by the next-door church, a pyramid-shaped building which is itself nearing completion. The school will eventually move to a permanent home, in the middle of the wood visible from Mrs Humphreys' office window, and its present site will become the church graveyard.

"We're very lucky they have allowed the school to be here," says Lucy Edginton, whose four-year-old daughter Grace is in reception at Jeavons Wood. Mrs Edginton, collecting Grace accompanied by daughter Elsie, two- and-a-half, and Isaac, 15 weeks, has done her bit for the birth rate, but admits there were anxious moments about where her eldest would go to school. At one point, it looked like Grace may have been destined for the daily trip to Hardwick. "I wasn't prepared to put her on a bus at four- and-a-half," says Mrs Edginton.

The shortage of slack in the system before the arrival of Jeavons Wood means many parents have to send their children to different schools. Sulakshana Alladwar is picking up four-year-old Amit from Jeavons Wood, but eldest son Aditya is in Year 6 at Monkfield Park. It turns out that neither of them are the closest to the family home. "Our catchment area is Vine, but Vine is full," says Mrs Alladwar.

Mrs Humphreys is aware that this could have meant the new school would get off to an unfortunate start. "Before we had our first parents' evening in the community we joked that we were opening a school that no one wanted to go to," she says. "It might have been that parents were almost forced into coming to us because the other two schools were full."

But while there are children at Jeavons Wood with siblings at one of the other schools, the reaction at that first meeting showed it was a long way from being Hobson's choice. She says it was apparent that many parents, particularly those faced with the prospect of sending their children to the next village, were eager for the new school to open.

When Emily Flitton was appointed key stage 1 leader at the school, she was told there would be 10 children in her class. Instead, she started the term with 21, with another on the way. There are 32 children split into two reception classes, but even beyond that there is no doubt that the school roll will just keep on growing.

"There are lots of young mums dropping their children off and picking them up," says Ms Flitton. "It's really exciting to be working here, and it definitely feels different from other schools."

Foundation stage leader Jo Burke swiftly discovered the value of teaching in a growing village. She says the children have been fascinated by the construction work going on around them. An attraction over the summer was the school building itself, a series of prefabricated rooms that have been clipped together, and are designed to be unclipped when necessary. Pupils have also been promised a tour of the next door church as soon as the outer shell is completed.

"It is very exciting, especially when you consider a lot of village schools are having to amalgamate or close," she adds. The amount of green space is also a boon. The large playing field on the other side of the school from the church has proved a godsend for digging up some creepy crawlies or looking for frogs.

Cambourne's fecundity has been attributed by the more fanciful to something in its water, but the reality is more down-to-earth. An affordable option for people working in nearby Cambridge has an obvious appeal, with plenty of parks and green spaces an attraction to those thinking of starting a family. As a new community, it also offers the advantages of village life, without having to spend 30 years getting accepted by the locals.

"It's very family-orientated here - there are lots of social clubs for children and lots of open spaces," says Lucy Hardwidge, whose four-year- old daughter Fay is at Jeavons Wood and who will notch up 10 years in Cambourne this year, making her one of its longest-serving inhabitants.

Just behind her in the Cambourne longevity stakes is Helen Taylor, nine years in the village and collecting son Alex, five in two weeks, from the school. "I lived in Cambridge with my parents and this was the only place where we could afford to buy," she says.

In the window of Sharman Quinney estate agents in the village centre, prices range from pound;149,995 for a three-bedroom mid-terrace to pound;265,000 for a five-bed detached home. While it's no bargain basement, this is substantially cheaper than Cambridge, where Land Registry figures show the average house went for pound;295,507 in June.

Luke Pearce, a valuer, says a lot of prospective buyers are young couples and families, often relocating from London in search of a quieter, and cheaper, life. There are also a lot of within-village chains, as owners move up the property ladder while remaining in Cambourne. "It is quite a family-orientated place," he says.

Loading up her car in one of the popular mother and toddler bays in the village Morrison's, Jan Nicklas is inclined to agree. "I thought it would be a good place for young people," she says. "It's a new village and everyone is starting together, rather than somewhere with a lot of cliques."

But Mrs Nicklas, whose eight-year-old son Keilan is a pupil at Monkfield Park, also draws attention to the lack of facilities in the village. While the talk now is of Cambourne's appeal to families with toddlers, in a few years' time all these children are going to be teenagers, and they're going to want something a little more edgy than parks and swings. Older children - along with pensioners - are thin on the ground now, but the thing with babies is they tend to get bigger.

As well as the large Morrison's and Sharman Quinney, the village high street contains two other estate agents, a hairdressers, a betting shop and a dry cleaning shop. Eating out comes in the form of a Chinese takeaway, a chip shop and an Indian restaurant. There is a pub and a hotel with a members' gym.

Green space is in abundance, but the leisure centre is still just a shaded area on the development plans. Mother and toddler groups are overflowing, but there are no youth clubs. Even the police station hasn't been built yet, just a metal frame emerging opposite the library. "I'm dreading the next 20 years when there will be all these teenagers," says Mrs Nicklas.

What teenagers there are now are already being blamed for some of Cambourne's emerging antisocial behaviour. Mick Khazna points the finger at the village youth for breaking the windows of his dry cleaners on several occasions. The hairdressers still bears the weekend's scars, in the form of a boarded-up glass door. "There is not a lot for them to do around here," says Mr Khazna. "So they hang around at night and do silly things."

As well as something to do when they are older, the baby boomers will also need to continue their education post-primary school. Most secondary-age children in the village go to Comberton Village College, a little under eight miles away, but unless this year's birth rate proves a flash in the pan there will be pressure to build a secondary school in Cambourne. So far, talk of a secondary school is just that, but a more pressing concern is whether there will be a need for a fourth primary. Each of the three primaries is two-form entry, and with a maximum of 30 in a class those six classes are not enough to cope with the 210 children born in the past 12 months. Barring a sudden exodus, either the existing schools will have to be enlarged or a new school constructed, if more families are going to be spared putting their children on the bus to Hardwick.

"Without any growth it is going to be very difficult," says John Vickery, clerk of Cambourne Parish Council. The council is based in the Hub, a village hall that also hosts various community groups. Mr Vickery says it became obvious from the attendance of mother and toddler groups that something unusual was happening. "It had been gradually increasing for some time, but this year it seemed to just take off," he says.

The existing development plan takes the village up to 2016. Green belt regulations mean it is unlikely to be able to expand beyond the 4,250 homes in the original blueprint, although if demand to live in Cambourne continues there could be increasing pressure to relax these restrictions.

Mr Vickery hopes the arrival of the next wave of inhabitants - the 950 homes yet to be built - will help push development in the village centre, although he says Cambourne is already comparatively well provided for. "There are not many villages with the facilities we have got as it is," he says.

An advantage of setting up a new school in a growing community is there is no shortage of parents wanting to get involved. At Jeavons Wood, Mrs Humphreys says several have offered to help in school, and 11 have indicated they want to be part of the Parent Teacher Association, not a bad show when there are only 53 children.

"There's a feeling of camaraderie in the playground in the morning, that we're all in this together," she says. One of the most frequent remarks in comment books provided by parents is asking how they can extend their child's reading, says foundation leader Ms Flitton. "We have lots of parent volunteers and the parents seem quite keen on knowing how they can best support their children," she says.

There are also the issues involved in setting up any new school. The first day of term dawned with no furniture in Mrs Humphreys' office. Ms Flitton is taking today's class in the corridor while an engineer fits the interactive whiteboard. The first seven days saw seven different lunchtime routines, as staff worked out whether it was best for those with packed lunches to start early, or whether the youngest children who needed help cutting up their food should go first.

The first morning also brought an unexpected question from a parent, who asked the headteacher in the playground when they would know what time to go into school. Fire drills and emergency evacuation procedures were all in place, but there was no tradition of how to start the school day.

In the end, the teachers opened the doors and the children went in, without the need for a whistle or bell.

Two extra classrooms will be added to the building next year, to cope with the additional year groups, while the following year should see the school move on to its permanent site. When Jeavons Wood is full it is expected to have 420 on roll.

Just like Cambourne itself, at the moment Jeavons Wood is very much a place for younger children. The oldest child in the school is seven, and it will be another four years before it has its first Year 6 pupils. This will still be three years before the expected completion of building work in the village.

The lack of the upper primary years means the teachers are unable to turn to older children in the same way as in other primaries, says Ms Burke. "They are the children we might have asked to be mentors, help with lunchtime monitoring or turning computers off at the end of the day. Children like to have those responsibilities," she says.

Mrs Humphreys agrees. "I miss the older children," she says. "You rely on them to support the little ones and set the tone." But there is also something romantic in seeing her pupils age along with their community. "It is almost like the village is growing as the children grow up," she adds. "It's a nice thing to be part of."

Selected birth rates (per 1,000 population) in 2008

Source: CIA World Factbook; Cambridgeshire County Council

  • 8.36 Italy
  • 10.25 EU average
  • 10.65 UK
  • 12.73 France
  • 18.72 Brazil
  • 20.04 Mexico
  • 21.40 World average 22.22 India
  • 24.10 Cambourne
  • 26.42 Philippines
  • 28.86 Bangladesh
  • 29.22 Ghana.

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