When the grounds of Fochriw Primary School in rural Caerphilly were vandalised two years ago, the incident became a catalyst for an eco improvement programme involving community partners. ‘Our aim was to create meaningful learning experiences from what had happened by integrating collaboration, resilience and active citizenship across our curriculum,’ says Sharon Pascoe, headteacher at the 112-pupil village school.
The result was ‘From Tragedy to Triumph with Fochriw’s Green Hand Gang’, a project which involved each class taking part in challenges and problem solving by applying their literacy, numeracy and digital skills to bring about positive change in their environment. The project was spearheaded by the school’s eco committee, comprising two representatives from each year group between Reception and Year 6.
‘The pupils were proactive from the start,’ recalls Sharon. ‘Although upset at the vandalism, they were determined to come back better by repairing or replacing what had been damaged and transforming the school grounds into a more secure and special place.’
Before Covid struck, the school had run an annual ‘Litter Less’ community spring clean campaign, in collaboration with Keep Wales Tidy (KWT). So when news of the vandalism reached the school’s KWT coordinator, Andrew King, he immediately offered his help, alerting Sharon to the possibility of grant funding from the Postcode Lottery, as well as arranging to meet the eco committee (at a safe social distance).
Working with KWT, the children developed ideas for the redesign and improvement of their school grounds. Several classes suggested creating a reading area with wooden tepees, whilst others highlighted the importance of secure storage units. The pupils also researched what trees and plants would be suitable for the local conditions, mapping out areas for fruit growing, raised beds and plants to encourage wildlife.
These plans were submitted as part of the grant application and the school successfully secured £10,000 in funding. The two-way collaboration with KWT was further strengthened when the pupils took part in a postponed litter clean-up campaign around the village in late spring.
Also involved in the project was Commons Connection Ranger Mark from the government agency Natural Resources Wales. Mark, who had previously worked with the school on a number of initiatives to prevent fly tipping, helped the children research how to plant hedgerows that would both protect the school grounds and encourage wildlife. Their work was in turn supported by the local hedgehog charity based in Torfaen, which sent a donation and wildflower seeds.
Meanwhile, the school’s PTA (The Friends of Fochriw Primary) was busy raising funds and securing donations to repair the damaged polytunnel. PTA members rang round local companies asking for support, and B&Q and the Blackwood Garden Centre were among those who made generous donations of plants, soil and planters. The PTA also launched a fundraising appeal on Twitter, which brought in £884.76.
In addition, the Parish of Pontlottyn and Fochriw St Tyfaelog donated planters and raised over £110, while the community police support officers, Caerphilly Council and a range of volunteers offered help with the gardening and repair.
The children’s achievements were recognised when Fochriw Primary was named a regional winner in the Better Energy School Awards, a national competition run by the Young People’s Trust for the Environment (YPTE) in partnership with Total. The school was awarded £500 and received a certificate of excellence in environmental education.
Councillor Ross Whiting, cabinet member for learning at Caerphilly Council, says that there is tremendous local pride in Fochriw Primary School: ‘They have overcome a devastating challenge and in doing so have created something beautiful within their school grounds.’
For Sharon Pascoe, the project shows what can happen when a community works together: ‘We were delighted when our efforts to share our aspirations for our pupils to be ethical, informed citizens was recognised. We set high expectations in our environmental work and this feel-good story of overcoming the destruction that happened shows the resilience of our whole school community. Our thanks go to all those organisations and local businesses who became part of this team effort.’