With a great destination at the end of the journey

It’s five years since I wrote about our first granddaughter Lily scooting to school. Time seems to move on so quickly but she still uses the scooter as her fast transport. Looking further back to several more years I can clearly remember on a day just after Christmas seeing a boy out with his new “toy” a scooter and muttering about it being the latest gimmick that would fade as quickly as most other Christmas “must have” toys had. How wrong I was and I can see why. Scooters, when ridden with awareness of fellow pedestrians, fit well on the pavements and thus, unlike bikes do not have to compete with road traffic. They even seem to have usurped skateboards at some parks as the favourite “wheeled-workouts”.

So Lily is still scooting, but also enjoying cycling swimming and walking too. She’s also been very fortunate that her junior school has proved just as enticing as her previous infant school for her to rush through the gate every day and get absorbed in the rich variety of activities on offer. As in my original article the scooter was and still is the vehicle for me to record with such great pleasure all the changes made at the school since our son was there some thirty years ago. There were two schools then, Lightburn Boys, opened just before the First World War began and, close by, Dale Street Girls, the last two single sex primary schools in Cumbria. Dale Street also had a separate Infants School.

A few years ago all three schools were amalgamated on the Lightburn site and given the new “important” name Sir John Barrow School in memory of one of the town’s famous sons. It’s now known simply and affectionately as SJB!

The school has on role almost 300 pupils which is very large by Cumbrian standards. How could so many pupils be successfully accommodated and educated on such a small site? It’s a challenge that has been met admirably and, in the last few years, just as at Lily’s infants school, I’ve seen so many different improvements and learning opportunities added to the grounds and the flexibility and level of use that these are put to that I marvel at them whenever I’m with Lily and her younger sister Katie.
The school site is tucked away at the side of a high railway embankment that carries trains along the Cumbrian coast. On the other sides it’s surrounded by old but not too tall Victorian terrace-houses and at the rear of the school building is a busy highway down to the coast. The original building is almost on the road side with a grassy strip at the back between it and the railway line.

Improvements to this and the yard were being made before the present headteacher, Helen Pemberton arrived in 2012.

Having been taking Lily to SJB for almost three years I’ve witnessed even more developments and also how well ordered the children are so that they don’t overwhelm the equipment or other pupils, especially the younger ones.

The children have been consulted on the management of the grounds and over any further improvements that could be made. It seems a dance stage is a high priority.

This brought back memories of my own school where the wide steps outside the reception class were regularly used by the older girls at lunch time for “shows”. The perennial problem of footballers knocking other children over like skittles has been solved by them having a sufficiently large corner of the yard with a very tall fence around it, which also saves balls from bouncing into the road. Just off-side of the main yard area for lining up to go in (handled with impressive military precision!) is a tall post topped with a circular dish for would-be netball and basket ball shooters to aim at. Between it and the cycle shed is a marked out grid for other games and a well stocked equipment trolley that is wheeled away when the whistle is blown.

Nearer to the rear of the school are three of the infant classrooms. They exit and enter separately off the shared yard just before the juniors are called in There’s a covered play zone for them complete with sitting places and a play kitchen and a sand pit. Just beyond is a big astro-turfed zone with stepping stones, a chain bridge a climbing wall and a set of hanging tyres for them to tackle. The ages are not segregated and seem to take a careful lookout for each other. I should add that there are also sturdy seating alcoves for those who’d just like to meet and chat or watch others being active.

Along the west wall of the school are three large benches ideal for outdoor picnics but here too another opportunity has been taken as each table has board games for chess, draughts and snakes and ladders on the laminated tops. Towards the east end of the grounds the main road is well screened by a solid brick wall and there’s a large collection of tyres well placed for jumping and bouncing on. Between the slope and the flat ground is a well constructed willow tunnel with four exits and entrances, ideal for hide and seek once the leaves have reappeared. The main grassed strip is close to the railway’s fence line just a wide enough size for viewing sports day races. When the trees are in leaf there’s quite a woodland feel to the area Up in the far west corner is their little woodland complete with a mosaic stepping stone path and next to it a growing area. More tyres have been put to good use here to separate the crops. It’s a good easy way of creating raised beds that children can get round to tend to the produce. As well as being involved in the “Growing Schools” movement they are also involved in the Forest Schools programme using what limited woodland they have for introducing forest skills and then using the large woods at nearby Conishead Priory. True, you could find other schools with a similar range of outdoor activities as school grounds have been improving and becoming more imaginative ever since I began teaching. One of the early pioneers of activity apparatus, all wood based at the time was Playdale, just a few miles away from SJB.

It’s the way they have been placed within the school’s limited outdoor area that is so impressive and the amount of use the children seem to make of them. All the more welcome when survey after survey expresses concern over the lack of outdoor activity that many children now get.
To me there’s something else that makes SJB stand out and it’s at the other side of the school near the entrance gates where the nursery and reception classes have a busy play zone.  There’s a covered sand pit but also a covered soil one too and by it a well equipped free standing area for plant potting and seeding or just some mud pie making and similar imaginative play all constructed by the husband of one of the staff.  Next to it attached to the wall is another original activity, a large board with lots of drain pipes on it all angled so that water poured in at the top eventually finds its way to the bucket at the bottom.  All this is designed to show gravity in action and a very practical outcome of a technology project by the local secondary school.

Just as in my original article about the wonderful uses that Lily’s infant school had made of their limited outdoor space, and their close links with the community, it has given me great pleasure to be able to write another similar article and even greater pleasure to see how lucky Lily has been to thrive in such a stimulating environment, both indoors and outside and through the many links the school has with our local community.

Pressures on academic performance, accountability and security make teaching a far more demanding job than when I started out. Too much pressure can be counter-productive, especially if it transfers through to the pupils. Miss Pemberton and her dedicated team have managed to maintain something very precious in fulfilling her aim in her own words “To be a school where pupils rush through the gates looking forward to the day and enjoying learning.”

David Fellows


A shortened version of this article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 109).  To read more school-focused features like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment