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On the trail of keeping in trim

Anything involving the word "trim" usually means No Fun To Be Had Here. No fat, no taste, some effort required. You know the sort of thing. But the 579 pupils of Middleton Park High School in Leeds opted for the spartan life when they were asked how they would improve a courtyard space at their school.

Give us a "trim trail", they said. Something we can use at lunchtimes and breaks. So it came to be - with an Pounds 8,000 grant from Middleton councillors. The equipment for the the purpose-built activity area was installed in May, ready for testing by pupils, before an official opening this term.

The trim trail involves 14 exercises - best described to the uninitiated as something akin to circuit training. Exercises - or stations - are explained on a permanent outdoor board and include step-ups and chin-ups, balance beams, parallel bars, incline bars, a ladder to swing across and other "basic" gymnastic frames. None of the activities includes weights.

The metal equipment was imported from the United States. It sounds extravagant. No, says headteacher Perry Gardner, it wasn't any more expensive than products available here, but it was more robust than the largely wooden British ranges. It was vital the equipment be vandal-proof - and that it withstand heavy use over short periods.

At present pupils aged 13 to 15 have sole use of the trim trail at lunchtimes and breaks, although it's open to all pupils for PE sessions. Mr Gardner says the restriction gives the younger pupils a secure area of their own away from older ones, with a chance to burn off excess energy. It also allows for better supervision as a member of staff is always on duty. (The school has two other play areas: a small, paved "walk and talk" area and a larger space where all year groups mingle for football and other activities.) The trail is set in a bed of bark which helps prevent major injuries. "There's been a few bumps and bruises, nothing more," says Mr Gardner. Numbers waiting for the different activities are more of a problem - the trail is proving popular and queues can reach supermarket-length. It is out of bounds in wet weather as the metal becomes slippery.

Middleton had advice from its local education authority, but Mr Gardner sees the decision to install the equipment as very much pupil-led. "We tend to underestimate how much children want a nice school, nice surroundings. Once we started talking about the environment, we came round to things to do at lunchtimes and breaks," he says.

The school may open it for community use in the future; a nearby leisure centre may be approached. But it's "early days yet", says Mr Gardner.

His advice for schools planning something along similar lines? "Involve your pupils. Make sure the majority voice is heard. It means they feel they are investing in their school."

And yes, he has had a go. Not quite in the depths of the night, but "privately".

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