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Weymouth Holy Trinity Environmental Garden

Stephen Baker visits the environmental garden at Holy Trinity CE Primary School and Nursery in Weymouth

The school’s gardening club members in their environmental garden

It might seem a strange thing for a relatively recently built school to build a new classroom in the open air, but the willow classroom at Weymouth’s Holy Trinity CE Primary and Nursery is just a small part of what this small patch of ground offers to the pupils, teachers and wider community around the school.

It is fair to say that there are not many schools which have an RHS Gold Medal-Winning garden, an original Anderson shelter and a dipping pond at their disposal either, but Holy Trinity is, in many ways, different from other schools.

Holy Trinity opened in 2008; it was an amalgamation of local Junior and Infants schools. With 690 pupils, it is the largest primary school in Dorset, and in the top ten largest primaries in the country. It has three classes in each year group – nine infants’ classes (Reception, Year 1, and Year 2), twelve Key Stage 2 (junior school) classes, plus two for nursery-aged children, making 23 classes in all.

According to Deputy Head, Catherine Smith: ‘Considering our size, we’ve still got that small school feel. It’s the staff, governors, community and indeed everyone who comes into contact with the school, who allow this to happen.’

One element of the school’s life where this co-operation is most visible is the school’s Environmental Garden. The garden, which won the Dorset Wildlife Trust Schools award last year, plays a key role in a number of ways in the school: academic, pastoral and even behavioural. So what does it add to the life of the school and how?

‘Classes throughout the school use the garden in a variety of ways,’ reveals Catherine. ‘It’s an oasis of serenity. It’s also slightly out of the way of the everyday school day and is a place where you can feel at one with nature.’

School governor Helen Toft concurs: ‘It’s not right next to the school, so it’s a little bit special for the children to go there. They don’t take it for granted. When they have the chance to go up there to do a lesson, it’s a treat.’

Catherine explains: ‘All the children have a role to play in the garden, but it’s a perfect mix of adults and children working productively together with a common purpose. The children see the work that Helen puts in and that the other adults put in to make it a beautiful place.’

The willow classroom…

…and its Teacher’s chair, created by local craftsman, Roger Lanigan

Although not enormous in terms of area, the garden’s openness is what assures its tranquillity. ‘I’ve seen three classes up there,’ reveals Helen, ‘one in the willow classroom, one at the pond and one tending to their beds. Even with ninety children up there, it’s still quite calm.’ This recurring sense of the garden’s calmness is one put to use in another element of school life, as Catherine explains: ‘We have a nurture group – the Dolphin room – and the group’s staff will take children up there to have a bit of quiet time.’ Nor is it just the pupils who benefit, reveals Catherine: ‘I’ve been up there with staff,’ she says, ‘when they’ve needed an opportunity to think and to reflect away from the hustle and bustle of the school environment.’

Fundamentally, though, the Environmental Garden is a hugely valuable teaching resource. ‘There’s a huge amount for which the garden is used,’ says Catherine. ‘We do a lot of cross-curricular teaching and where possible like to ensure that every opportunity is taken to enable children to apply their learning and skills within an everyday context. The children may be going on a bug hunt and they’ll be putting together data handling exercises to record what they’ve seen in the garden. In identifying different types of plants or animals that they’ve seen, the subject is more real to them, because they’re using the maths for real not an abstract thing. It’s also obviously used for environmental teaching: the Year 2s made a recycling bin out of recycled newspaper last year – and it’s still there; they’ve made wind vanes out of plastic bags. The garden’s also a focus for art work; again it’s the serenity of the place which promotes creativity.’

The pastoral nature of the garden provides uses elsewhere within the curriculum: ‘It links in with RE as well, the children have a tree on which they hang memories; last year when it first went up, children were asked just to write things about people they’ve known,’ recalls Helen. ‘Some of the things they wrote were so poignant.’

Helen believes that the garden can ‘fit with pretty much any part of the curriculum; one of our TAs went up there with a piano-accordion to dance in the willow classroom. We have a garden club, and we encourage them to make their own salads when the produce is ripe, and we’ve talked about putting in a pizza oven. There’s the World War 2 garden which links with history and some staff use the garden to link up with any subject, others need a little more encouragement. Sports is probably the only thing which can’t be linked to the garden.’

The Anderson shelter in the World War 2 garden; this was the theme chosen by the children at the school for a previously empty patch of the garden

The children are not simply users of the garden though, as Helen explains: ‘The school ran a poll to find out what kinds of things the children wanted in the garden and the one which won was a World War 2 garden. We were aware of an old gentleman who, it was said, had an Anderson shelter in his garden so we went out to have a look at it and it was in a completely overgrown part of the garden. He was happy for us to have it, so we disassembled it and rebuilt it here, although we didn’t build it to its full size, as it would have taken up too much room.’

As well as the purely educational benefits, there are financial benefits too. ‘Mini-beasts are part of the curriculum and we used to have to go to Lorton Meadows to do that part of the curriculum,’ Helen explains, ‘but now we can do it here. Not only are there savings on coach hire, but also it is much easier to follow up on projects as it’s just a short walk from the school.’

One classroom is an even shorter walk away: the living willow classroom. ‘This is based on one that they have at the Eden Project, Helen remembers, ‘I saw it years ago, long before the thought of having a garden emerged. I insisted we give it a wibbly entrance as it’s much more exciting for the children coming in.’ Opposite the entrance is a chair made by local craftsman Roger Lanigan. The children sit on logs. To get these, Helen simply phoned the Forestry Commission saying: ‘I need some logs,’ to which they replied ‘how many do you want?’ This ability of Helen’s to get people to do things for the school has certainly served Holy Trinity well. The centre-piece of the garden is the Gold-Medal-winning garden from the RHS Hampton Court Show, donated by Dorset Cereals. ‘When we got this garden,’ Helen recalls, ‘it was an “edible” garden. It came on a lorry and arrived at the end of Summer term, then Dorset Works came and rebuilt it for us. We tried to replicate what people would have seen at the Hampton Court Show.’

The garden's beds looking towards the shed

In retrospect, attempting to keep a garden designed to be beautiful for a week all year round is possibly a bit optimistic even in general terms. There were specific challenges too, as Helen remembers: ‘We had a rice paddy in our greenhouse last year because in the first year we had tried to replicate the cereals that had been in beds at the show, but pigeons came up here and had a field day, so we won’t be trying to that again. We will be growing papyrus to make writing materials for the Egyptian history curriculum in the greenhouse, though.’

The legacy of the RHS-level quality is beneficial in other ways. Their shed is ‘oak – probably about £6000-worth, with a sedum roof which we’d never have been able to justify buying had it not been given to us by Dorset Cereals.’

The school and its volunteers have been adept at dealing with fund-raising. ‘When we put in the Lottery bid for the dipping pond, I threw in the pergola too to get us close to the [£10,000] maximum bid,’ Helen remembers. ‘In the end we got £9960.’

As well as raising money from outside sources, Holy Trinity Environmental garden has some dedicated helpers. Steve, a local volunteer, moved from a house with a garden to a flat and now devotes his time to keeping Holy Trinity’s in tip-top order. As a registered bird ringer he can also keep excellent records of the birds that he’s seen in the garden, and the shed has an array of images of avian visitors.

2012 is obviously an important year for Weymouth in general, and Holy Trinity is not immune, as Helen explains: ‘We’ve got this task which is quite scary: we’re committed to doing a floral display on Buxton Road as the Olympic Torch goes past, which is quite challenging.’

Holy Trinity’s Head, Kay Rawling, hopes the garden will help the school to become even more closely involved with the local community: ‘Because I’m quite new to the school I am still amazed at the level of community engagement. Helen has developed and led a number of exciting and innovative projects involving the local community and we have arranged to have the garden open at the same time as the school fête to bring more people into the garden. We’re offering the use of the garden to the new residential home too,’ hopefully in exchange, Helen points out, for running water and electricity to the garden. The Royal Engineers are to come in to put in an eco loo in the garden and Holy Trinity will also be offering the use of the garden out to other schools to come and visit – for example, allowing pupils from other schools to come and visit the Anderson shelter.

Education, information and entertainment may be a Reithian concept, but there is little doubt that for the school and the wider community, these three benefits of the environmental garden are a wholly worthwhile trinity.

Neat and tidy: the watering station and outsized water butt encourage children to water sparingly with rainwater

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