The Bolnore School journey

PUBLISHED: 13:12 28 August 2009 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Children

Children

A class act<br/>Defeat wasn't an option when a group of parents went into battle, determined to have the village school they'd been promised...


Defeat wasn't an option when a group of parents went into battle, determined to have the village school they'd been promised. Maheesha Kottegoda learns a lesson about how to conduct a textbook battle against the council - and win...


ONCE upon a time, children from the village went to lots of different schools far, far away. They were driven miles from their homes every day until one afternoon, at a village fete, one of the mummies asked a question. When could the village have its own school?


She didn't want her daughter to travel far, far away and neither did the other parents, so together they came up with a clever plan. They would build their very own school in an old forest nearby. When they asked people in the town, everybody thought it was a wonderful idea and promised to help them as long as they didn't hurt any newts. Everyone agreed. The school was built and the village children lived happily ever after. The end.


If only setting up and running a school was really so simple ...


This autumn, while most children return to tidied, slightly refurbished classrooms, one group is starting at a new school - run by parents.


September will see the dream of few becoming a reality of many, as 28 young pupils file into class for the first time. Little will they know that last year Bolnore Village Primary School lived only in the minds of a handful of parents - Bolnore School Group, BSG - and before that existed only as figures on a page.


Chair Julia Bunting Thring is delightedly looking forward to the big day. She says: "I am so excited. After three years of meetings and emails it will be real people and real children."


The mother of three moved into a new Bolnore house in 2004. Buyers were told land would be set aside on the housing development for a school.


But in 2006 West Sussex County Council claimed there were insufficient numbers of children to warrant a school.


The official response came as a shock to Julia, who had grown accustomed to the sight of 'lots of people walking around with buggies'.


Asking questions


As a trained demographer, she was certain Bolnore had a higher concentration of children than her local authority suspected and offered to conduct a survey to prove it.


Over bitterly cold winter months Julia went door to door with a four-page questionnaire gathering evidence. She asked how many children families had and how many they expected to have in future. Numbers were gathered, entered on to a spreadsheet and crunched by the government statistician before a final report concluded she was right.


Bolnore Village bucked the trend of other wards in Haywards Heath. On average, across the six wards of the town 18.8 per cent of the population are aged under 16 compared with 32.6 per cent in Bolnore.


No fewer than 114 children were found to be primary school age and this number was set to rise to 207 by the time the youngest Bolnore cohort reached school age. This did not take into account 300 households that didn't complete the survey or a further 200 properties yet to be built as part of the development.


Bolnore School Group therefore argued there was a clear and urgent need for a primary school. Julia says: "Children in Bolnore went to 20 different schools so what was meant to be a new community ended up being a housing estate where people were driving their kids to school.


"There are eight schools in Haywards Heath and they are all good schools and well regarded but it was just that all of them involved us having to drive.


Moment of truth


"When I started this, I didn't set out to be a social entrepreneur, I just wanted a place for my daughter to go to school. I did not set out with some grand vision. I remember mentioning it to a couple of people who thought it was sort of a joke. We held a meeting and 15 families turned up and quite a few I had never met said they wanted to get involved."


Government policy shifted in 2006 changing the role of local authorities from education providers to commissioners of educational services. This allowed local councils to put educational services out to tender.


A defining moment came in August 2007. Elmgreen Secondary School became the first to be created by parents in West Norwood, London. Julia recalls: "I had just given birth to my son at Princess Royal Hospital when I saw it on the television. Elmgreen was the catalyst."


It seemed Bolnore's extraordinary band of parents who surveyed villagers door to door, collated data, presented it to the county, waited for the consultation process and put forward a proposal, somehow willed their little village school into existence.


On June 11, 2008 the county gave BSG the green light to build their eco-school. Julia remembers exactly where she was when she heard the news. "I was on a train back from a conference in Oxford when the phone started ringing. We thought there would be conditions but they gave it their backing without any amendments.


"I was delighted. It was such an exciting opportunity. Then everything went mad. People told me the BBC, the Independent and the Sunday Express had shown an interest in us. I was up at 6am for radio interviews."


Jane Keel, chairman of Mid Sussex District Council and school governor, lent her support along the way as 'a sounding board' and was 'thrilled to bits' for the group.


She says: "I think it is wonderful. I am particularly excited about the green aspects. It has been a privilege to be associated with it and to see the amount of work and level of commitment is just wonderful. If I had grandchildren nearby I would love them to go to the school." Jane's grandchildren live in Australia, however, which is a little outside the village catchment area. This academic year saw 45 families show an interest in the foundation school but 28 who selected it as their first, second or third choice are on the roll.


Going green


At first the first group will be taught in a classroom at St Wilfrid's CofE primary in Haywards Heath until the new school is built in September 2010.


Construction started in July and the group hopes to offset the adverse environmental impacts of building on ancient woodland by using the 'most sustainable materials that are practicable'.


Several eco-benefits are set to be added to the building, including insulation, natural ventilation, a green sedum roof, and a ground source heat pump. The pump works by laying pipes under the school playing field to draw heat from the ground. Children will also have green issues weaved into their curriculum as the governors seek accreditation as an eco-school.


Before any of these ideas could see the light of day, however, BSG faced an unexpected stumbling block - one they weren't quite sure how they could hop over.


Triturus cristatus, Britain's largest newt species, is protected by UK and EU law. In the past its mere presence has halted construction at Manchester airport, prevented a Wiltshire couple living in their £1 million home and cost Cheshire County Council £60,000 to relocate. Julia says: "There were stages when we thought the building work was going to be delayed by a year."


Problems arose for several reasons. The newts can only be moved during certain times of the year to coincide with their breeding cycle. Developers can face a six-month wait before they are allowed to intervene and even ground. Children will also have green issues weaved into their curriculum as the governors seek accreditation as an eco-school.


Before any of these ideas could see the light of day, however, BSG faced an unexpected stumbling block - one they weren't quite sure how they could hop over.


Triturus cristatus, Britain's largest newt species, is protected by UK and EU law. In the past its mere presence has halted construction at Manchester airport, prevented a Wiltshire couple living in their £1 million home and cost Cheshire County Council £60,000 to relocate. Julia says: "There were stages when we thought the building work was going to be delayed by a year."


Problems arose for several reasons. The newts can only be moved during certain times of the year to coincide with their breeding cycle. Developers can face a six-month wait before they are allowed to intervene and even then the three-inch amphibians must only be handled by licensed experts. And they can only be removed if an alternative site has been found.


If, and only if, these strict criteria are met can the newt brigade step in with their elaborate trapping strategy involving a foot high fence and sunken buckets.


Fortunately the problem arose between January and June, an alternative home was found and experts arrived to sink their buckets.


After all these arrangements were put in place just three newts were relocated and building work continued with minimum delay.


Meanwhile, headteacher Sharon Allen is busy preparing for the first day when the first class will have their first lesson. She says: "It is the last 100 metre sprint now. I have furniture being delivered and people coming in to assemble it on August 24. I am learning about 'populating' our website and thankfully the uniforms are all organised now. We had a uniform fitting last week and parents put in their orders.


"For the first lesson I have invited the parents in to look around. The children will do a treasure trail and exploration activities so they feel happy and settled."


The secret garden


Sharon, formerly a deputy head at an inner city school in London, is discovering what life in Sussex has to offer.


She says: "I moved from a flat in East Dulwich with three cats to a cottage near Horsted Keynes. I had urban foxes in London but here I have badgers and deer.


"I remember when I first visited the school site, I thought: 'Gosh, is this the change that I want?' But I stood in that field and all I could see was a fantastic opportunity to grow a school." She plans to branch out with a secret garden with the help of Friends of Ashenground Woods. She says: "I would like it to be a school project for parents and children."


Tim Farmer, a member of the Bolnore School Group committee, hopes the school would help bring the community together as well as provide somewhere for his daughters Lani and Elle to be educated.


He says: "Bolnore is a Marmite village - you either love it or hate it. It lacks soul. It had no heart. The marketing spiel talked about a relief road, a community centre and sports facilities, all of which have yet to materialise.


"The residents feel let down by Crest, the builders. Pushing forward with the school has started to give the community a centre, somewhere to concentrate on."


Ultimately it is hoped the school will provide essential wraparound care for the commuter village and give grown-ups the sporting facilities and social hub they need.


Tim Farmer says: "I would love to see Girl Guides based there. There is a lack of spaces in the local area. I love my sport so it would be great to use the football pitch or play touch rugby."


High hopes


Residents have been asked what they would like to see run from the school.


Julia says: "There is a large hall, community room and smaller hall and I would like to see a range of activities, whether it be keep fit or film nights. After having three children, I would like to see keep fit classes and my husband, Barrie, wants yoga."


There are high hopes for Bolnore Village School. Ultimately it will serve 210 pupils and has room to expand. Reports are already cropping up of parents moving in specifically to send their child to the school. Julia is keen to point that it takes more than a school to raise a child. She says: "We have explicitly recognised from the start that parents have an important part to play in education.


"We are the earliest education. Our view is that parents and schools need to work hand in hand. It takes a village to raise a child. There is no one person that has the single role raising a child.


"When I look back on my own childhood the Guide leader and the local policeman who ran the youth group all had an impact on the person I am today, as well as family and teachers.


"As parents we are not just responsible for our own children. If we want a community we have a responsibility to provide the best for all children. We believe a child succeeds only if all children succeed."



Bolnore School Group's vision and ethos


Vision We believe that each child succeeds only if all children succeed.


Ethos To create a school to meet the needs of future generations.


Aims To provide a happy, safe and nurturing learning environment.


We will encourage independent thought and curiosity, embrace a desire to learn, and celebrate achievement. Children will be supported to lead a healthy lifestyle, to respect and enhance their surroundings and to work together to create a strong sense of community where the views and feelings of others are respected and valued.


We will encourage pupils to be responsible for the natural environment and will make the environment a central part of the curriculum and the broader school life.


The school will take a child-centred approach and will seek to develop the children's social, emotional and behavioural skills. We believe these skills underlie almost every aspect of school, home and community life, including effective learning and the ability to make a positive contribution to the community.


The beauty, diversity and richness of the regenerating ancient woodland within which the school will be located will be part of the fabric of the school. It provides a unique and stimulating environment for learning about the world around us; for learning about the interdependence of people on nature and each other; and for growing physically, intellectually and spiritually.


Driving force behind the creation of Bolnore school, Julia Bunting Thring, above: 'Our view is that parents and schools need to work hand in hand. It takes a village to raise a child'


Opposite, 'thrilled to bits' council chairman Jane Keel amid village scenes and on this page, top, parent Alastair McPherson, studying for an ecology degree, left, parent governor Tony Bridger and far left Tim Farmer: 'Bolnore is a Marmite village. You either love it or hate it'

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