Under the extended schools agenda, all schools are expected to enhance their community provision and open up their sites to embrace a range of wider community initiatives. Nina Siddle explains how one school in East Yorkshire is developing an innovative garden area, and outlines the key role that school business managers can play in such initiatives

As a school situated in a socially deprived area, with students unable to experience wider opportunities, Withernsea Junior School is continually looking for new ways to enrich and promote the enjoyment of its students’ education. More recently, as the extended schools agenda has gathered pace, we have also considered what we might offer to our community.

After a period of reflection, we realised that an exciting opportunity lay ahead of us in the form of an existing ‘peace garden’. We felt sure that by extending and developing our peace garden, we could offer much to our own students and the wider community. This would bring widespread benefits, as well as making better use of our existing resources. As the school’s business manager I played a key role in leading and coordinating this exciting initiative.

An inspirational vision

Our vision was to enhance the existing garden by creating a range of new distinct zones, with stimulating and diverse themes. These included a decked area large enough for a whole class to be seated and other smaller areas suitable for group work. By opening up the facility to other key community groups, we believed it would enhance our effective use of partnerships in the community, reflecting our key values and building on the quality of education already in the school.

We also hoped to use this initiative to further link our excellence in teaching to the ‘Enjoyment in Learning’ strand of the Primary Strategy 2003 and the Every Child Matters agenda.

The initial plan of action

  1. Survey students through school council to gain ideas for the new garden area and what they see it being used for.
  2. Discuss with staff at SMT/briefing.
  3. Approach local community for ideas and layout suggestions – Business in the Community Website.
  4. Obtain quotes for works required – ensuring value for money and possible discounts.
  5. Secure funding to enable project to go ahead.
  6. Inform parents and keep this as an ongoing newsletter item, following progress in a timely manner.
  7. Aim for spring marketing strategy and opening to provide encouragement for stakeholders involved in the project’s completion.

What would the new learning area would provide?

Two principal aims were included in our plan for the new area.

  • We wanted our already well established Peace Garden (which we called Phase 1) to flow into the new area (Phase 2) with an ambience of peace and reflection, encouraging innovation and creativity. In this respect, the area would be beneficial in the management and support of students who benefit from classroom withdrawal and groupwork. These included those requiring behavioural support, anger management, speaking and listening support and help with emotional literacy.
  • By inviting other groups from the local community into the garden, we hoped to raise our profile as an inclusive and innovative school and widen the horizons of our students and community.

How would success be judged?

We felt it was important to set realistic criteria on which to judge the effectiveness or our work. More generally, we hoped that the project would contribute to the school’s:

  • community and school relationships
  • purpose
  • market
  • effectiveness and improvement
  • values.

The school operates in an enterprising and competitive LEA and its responsiveness to the local community, as well as is internal stakeholders, provides for school empowerment.

More specifically, we envisaged quality being demonstrated in terms of three principal measures:

  • relationship building and effective enjoyment
  • enrichment of the curriculum
  • impact on learning.

Working with partners

A key element of the project was the active involvement of a range of partners. These included:

  • all local schools
  • all local pre-school providers
  • Brownies, Guides, Cubs, Scouts
  • a group for people with mental disabilities.

We realised that a range of activities could be carried out in the new space, such as:

  • circle time
  • environmental/geographical/scientific studies
  • emotional literacy groups
  • exploration – the new area leads directly to a wildlife area,
  • vegetable garden and seating area for reflection
  • a gardening club.

The space would contain:

  • areas with colours, shapes and other visually stimulating impacts
  • a weather station in one seated, small group area
  • a sundial in another small, seated group area
  • nature trails.

How did we ensure that the expectations of the project’s stakeholders would be met?

Initially the children were surveyed, via school council, to see what ideas they had for the garden development and what they wanted to gain from it. Some of the ideas, whilst very creative, were unworkable. Other ideas such as sundials, an elaborate entrance and welcome sign, small areas with raised planters and a pagoda were definite possibilities.

Upon realising the widespread appeal in the project, I lodged an application with Business in the Community (www.bitc.org.uk), a region-wide website which provides a vehicle for local companies to contribute to local projects.

Examples of the types of projects they have contributed to range from refurbished village halls to developing sports and reading initiatives for local children. Participating companies encourage their staff to use some of their work time to volunteer for a host of community and environmental projects that matter to them.

An up-and-coming architectural company offered its services to us and created an inspiring plan, focusing on learning areas. Each area within the garden has its own individual impact on enrichment and enjoyment, and is suitably themed. A series of paths and walkways link each area together, encouraging exploration and ingenuity. In using children as the basis for the plan, we had well defined expectations. The children’s ideas were pivotal to the architect’s final design. This then became the basis of the project, and although not set in stone, was the foundation on which we worked.

In addition to this we contacted several local community groups who were interested in using such an area and asked them for letters expressing interest and how they would benefit from access to the garden. These letters provided additional support for a National Lottery bid, which was fundamental to the funding of the project (see below).

In collecting the data to formulate this project (ideas, expressions of interest, plans etc), we identified that the garden needed to:

  • enhance the physical environment
  • enhance the school’s culture of enrichment
  • fit with the vision and values of the school
  • convince the whole-school community that society believes in the school and is willing to invest in it – resources alone do not guarantee school improvement.

Funding

We were keen to obtain external funding for the project but it was vital to ensure that the school could sustain the costs if bids for external funds failed. Particular care was taken to inform ourselves of what the cost/benefits of the project were, what the total cost would be and how this could this be paired down if necessary (for example, could the project be undertaken in phases if funding was an issue? What were the local environmental implications? What strategies could the school use to promote itself via this new learning area?)

We were happily successful in gaining grants from a number of sources:

The East Riding Extended Schools Fund – our bid outlined the proposal, participants, timing, activities, outcomes and complete budget. To gain funding it was important to evaluate rather than describe the project and demonstrate that it met with the appropriate criteria and focused on the access to wider opportunities that participants might not otherwise experience. Reference was made to social deprivation and geographical isolation and how the development would encourage participation, make a positive contribution and provide an area of enrichment with an innovative, creative and stimulating appeal. The Extended Schools Fund contributed £4,400, which funded the raised, decked outdoor classroom area – the main feature of the garden.

Awards for All (www.awardsforall.org.uk) – this emphasised the impacts the development would have on the wider community and minority groups. It is vital when bidding for these grants to evidence your work. In our case I obtained letters expressing interest from local community groups, as described above. The letters highlighted how access to such an area would impact upon their activities. In addition to this, it is also vital to ensure that bids suitably address one or more of the current aims of Awards for All. These are:

  • Does your project/activity extend access and participation?
  • Will your project/activity increase skill and creativity?
  • Will your project/activity improve quality of life?

Awards for All is organised regionally. Project bids score more highly if they benefit the appropriate regional focus. In our case, the Yorkshire and Humber region focused on:

  • people living in disadvantaged areas and communities
  • disabled people and/or their carers
  • black and ethnic communities
  • benefit for older people (aged 60 or over).

The whole process of collecting supporting evidence and wording the bid appropriately is time consuming, but is necessary to ensure success. We received the maximum grant of £5,000, which funded the remainder of the building work.

Other contributions – On the back of the ongoing publicity campaign, we received various other contributions (such as donated resources and equipment) as well as some of the school’s own budget to plant out the garden.

To thank the contributors we purchased a supply of brass plaques, which were engraved with the name of each contributor and displayed on one of the walls in the garden.

During the later stages of the development, as often happens with projects like this, other ideas evolved for additional features. In one of the seating areas there was a definite lack of focus, so it was decided to investigate the erection of a lighthouse structure, approximately six feet high, which would reflect the seaside context of Withernsea. In it we wanted to house our weather station, donated to us by Eon-Uk.com. I tried with little success to get financial support for this venture, and in the end the school funded it. However, this was still substantially less than we had originally set aside to fund the garden development, and the feature made a dramatic impact.

Funding for extended schools

Withernsea Junior School secured grants from their local authority’s Extended Schools Fund and from the lottery-funded Awards for All Scheme, but there are a range of additional funding sources to explore if your school is considering a specific project to enhance its extended schools offering. These include the lottery-funded Reaching Communities fund (part of the Big Lottery Fund; www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/prog_reaching_communities). This innovative fund aims to enhance quality of life for ‘hard to reach’ groups with grants of up to £500,000 on offer. Some schools have accessed Sport England (www.sportengland.org) or Football Foundation (www.footballfoundation.org.uk/welcome) grants for major developments of sporting facilities. Another lottery-funded strand, Youth Music (www.youthmusic.org.uk/), supports initiatives with a strongly musical dimension. Many schools are also harnessing the support of local business for their extended schools programmes, as companies see the value in putting their name behind community-focused initiatives which touch a range of stakeholders.

Contractors and suppliers

Again, in line with the emphasis on community involvement, we contacted a local builder, who is also one of our parents, and initially asked him to come and provide specifications and quotes for the development. He quoted separately for each part of the development, so if lack of funding became an issue, we could have developed some of the garden with a view to completing it at a later stage. We had also obtained quotes from other contractors as comparisons, but eventually came to the decision that our local contact could manage the construction and source the carpentry element as part of his agreed quotation. This made the job of project managing the development easier.

Our caretaker was also invaluable. He undertook all the painting and some of the planting himself. Without his cooperation and goodwill, our costs would have increased significantly. Our local authority supplied the majority of the plants, shrubs and trees, securing significant discounts for us. Our groundsman and caretaker carried out all the final planting and made the necessary finishing touches to the garden.

Marketing

We gave ourselves a target of spring 2006 for works to be completed and planting to begin. Once the development was completed we envisaged an extensive marketing campaign as a vehicle to raise the school profile. We made use of media representation and finally included all stakeholders in an official opening of the development. I persuaded two local newspapers to give us full page articles making reference to all those involved and the sources of funding. Everyone who contributed to the development were able to use the campaign to raise their own profiles in the community, this being one of the ways we encouraged contributions and participation.

During the creation of the new garden area, we kept parents updated, step by step, via our newsletters and the students were involved via school council and the school’s gardening club. I utilised the local media throughout the project and made sure I referred to those who were contributing to it whenever I could.

Conclusion and evaluation

As demonstrated, we had a clear strategy for moving this project forward, including an extensive marketing campaign during and upon its completion. We aim to be a highly responsive school, continually improving itself and its people and communicating with the parents and local community.

Happily, the newly extended garden has already been extensively used. Various local groups have used the area either for peace and reflection or for group activities. They have all provided us with positive feedback. Our classes regularly used the raised classroom and other smaller group areas for environmental studies and our gardening club has contributed to some of the recent planting. I had anticipated that it might take longer for the teachers to incorporate the area into their planning, but in fact it has exceeded my expectations and has made the whole project really worthwhile.

The project has enhanced the teaching process and demonstrates innovation and inclusion. The area is fit for purpose and reflects the school’s key values. The project was used as a vehicle to raise the school’s profile and that of the key stakeholders who participated in the garden’s development. This encouraged their participation and contribution to the project and helped us to maintain our strong links with them.

The role of the school business manager in school improvement

My role as business manager at the school is ever-growing. As the role grows, so too does its remit and the expectations attached to it. As we continue to push forward and become involved in innovative projects, my role can in turn help create an enhanced environment for education and attainment.

With greater LEA responsibilities being delegated to schools, the role of the school business manager is more valuable than ever. This role is being developed at a time of great change in education and schools’ responsibilities to the community. Our awareness of school improvement and all its concepts is vital to this success. The implementation of projects such as this one provides us with the opportunity not only to manage and lead but also to understand how all the areas of school improvement impact on our role.

Further information

Photos, newsletters and progress reports are available on our website www.withernseajunior.co.uk

Nina Siddle is the business manager at Withernsea Junior School in East Yorkshire.

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