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Where a hole in the road is a learning experience

A missing manhole cover provided a project for children in a blighted area of Dumbarton

A missing manhole cover provided a project for children in a blighted area of Dumbarton

Giant numbers on the fence outside were the first clue that literacy and numeracy are "all around" at Brucehill Early Education and Childcare Centre, Scottish Education Awards judges noted.

Nearby, an archway of branches is not only fun to run through, but a place of experimentation, as a proliferation of stop-clocks and egg-timers testify: throw different-sized balls through the tunnel and pre-schoolers can learn about time and distance.

Brucehill, which won the Literacy and Numeracy Across Learning prize, is a haven in a part of Dumbarton blighted by drugs, drink and vandalism. "There's not an awful lot in the area," said head of centre Lynn McCafferty, citing a corner shop, a takeaway and an "activity centre" that is no match for the closed-down community centre.

Not that children are shut away in the centre: they venture into the streets regularly with staff and can reel off the names of buses and buildings. House numbers and car registrations provide help with numbers. If making soup, they fuse cookery and financial education by collecting ingredients from the corner shop.

At any time during their outings, a learning opportunity can emerge. Children gasped with concern when they spotted an uncovered manhole. "My wee brother could fall and break his neck," said one.

They took pictures, discussed what to do, and settled upon writing to West Dunbartonshire Council - the "people who look after where you live", everyone agreed. The next day, a manhole cover was back on. The children told the local newspaper, and their chance discovery became a media story.

"You put that down to being good citizens," said Mrs McCafferty. "But there's so much more going on: language, literacy, problem-solving."

Children's views are to the fore at Brucehill. They say what they would like to learn about and, when it is finished to their satisfaction, sign off on work themselves.

Individual portfolios, which begin to fill up from a child's first day, are within easy reach and can be pulled out by their proud owners at any moment. "We spend half our time putting things back in, but if that's all you have to worry about, then that's OK," said Mrs McCafferty.

Parents from miles around send their children to Brucehill. "There's something new again - this is magic," is a typical comment when picking up their children; Mrs McCafferty believes a nursery should be an ever- changing "Aladdin's cave" of colour and activity.

Judges were impressed, given the "inspiring" standards, that not one staff member was a qualified teacher. One parent, a primary teacher, was not too proud to admit that Brucehill had made her change her teaching methods.

"High praise indeed," commented the judges.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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