The school with a herd of water buffalo

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: West Rise Junior School
so you think its ok to teach children to kill squirrels & pigeons,.Learn to hunt and all about ...

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West Rise Junior School owns a herd of Asian water buffalo, a swarm of bees and is building a Bronze Age village. Emma Lee-Potter visited this unusual, yet successful school.

“I only wish I was seven again and could be a child at your school. You do such amazing things."

That was the reaction of television presenter Kate Humble when she visited West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, East Sussex, last year and saw the school's remarkable achievements for herself.

Headteacher Mike Fairclough admits that West Rise is “unconventional to say the least" and he is right. The school owns a swarm of one million bees, has a herd of Asian water buffalo, and is currently constructing a Bronze Age village on marshland opposite the school site. There is a dark room for photography, a radio studio (children produce a weekly request show), school newspaper, and a Mongolian yurt for circle time.

Children get the chance to light fires outside, use knives, fire shotguns, fish with reed rods and goose feather quills, and practise archery. Some have skinned rabbits, plucked pigeons and cooked over an open fire, all with the aim of learning about the countryside, conservation and land management.

West Rise, which has 250 pupils aged seven to 11 on its roll and a higher than average number of children on free school meals, prides itself on being innovative and highly creative. This approach dates back to 2007, when the school got involved in Room 13, an international initiative that encourages creative autonomy and enables pupils to work alongside a professional artist in residence. At West Rise, Room 13 is run by a committee of children and they do everything from film-making and animation to painting, making models and sewing.

Next, the school decided to launch a major Bronze Age project. The school is opposite 120 acres of wetland that 3,000 years ago housed the second largest Bronze Age settlement in Europe. Many of the artefacts discovered there by archaeologists are now on display at the British Museum.

Mr Fairclough realised that having a major archaeological site on the school's doorstep was an exciting educational opportunity and he and his team hit on the idea of asking the local authority if the school could lease the land, which includes two huge lakes.

“We asked the council if we could lease the land in order to teach the history curriculum through it and they agreed," said Mr Fairclough, who has been head at West Rise for 10 years and is also executive principal of Robsack Wood Primary Academy in Hastings.

“Once we had that environment everything else flowed from there. We already kept chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows and goats and then we discovered through our on-going research into the Bronze Age that massive horned cattle called aurochs once roamed the area. They are now extinct but water buffalo are the closest living relatives so we bought seven of them from a local farmer."

Known as The Marsh, the wetland has inspired a vast range of school activities, including a Forest School, where children watch birds, learn how to lay and light fires for boiling water and cooking, and plant willow whips for future green woodworking resources.

The children have now started to build a Bronze Age village on The Marsh. In 2008, an Ofsted inspector suggested that the school should create a round house on The Marsh and the first is now in place, complete with a thatched roof created by year 5 pupils and an 80-metre raised wooden walkway, for which the children laid every single post.

Work is about to start on a second round house and this time the children will work with local archaeologists and historians to create the walls and physical structure too.

The school has also worked with Eastbourne Museum to teach the pupils prehistoric crafts, using fleeces from the school sheep to spin and dye wool and digging clay from The Marsh to make replica Bronze Age pots.

Just as Mr Fairclough hoped, The Marsh is an integral part of teaching and learning at West Rise. As well as using the area for literacy, history, art and science, teachers and children are out in all weathers.

“We spend an awful lot of time on The Marsh," said Mr Fairclough. “Everything you teach within the classroom you can teach outside. We are all really flexible and responsive to environmental conditions and we don't mind plans being altered to seize the moment. If the sun suddenly shines we are all outside and if it snows everyone is out making snowmen."

The school has introduced Wild Time, with classes encouraged to be outside as much as possible. Each week, the class with the most Wild Time is allowed to look after a peace lily called Pete for the week. Similarly, the class with the best weekly attendance gets to look after Max, a toy water buffalo.

Despite the school's emphasis on the outdoors, Mr Fairclough is realistic about claims that today's children spend too much time watching television and playing computer games.

“It's about having a good balance of everything," he said. “It's just about having a varied diet – which is what we are giving our kids here."

Mr Fairclough is the school's literacy and history co-ordinator and occasionally covers lessons too. “I think that helps to keep my feet on the ground," he said. “I've still got high expectations but I am realistic about the massive amount of work that teachers do all of the time."

The school hit the headlines last year when the Daily Mail criticised it for allowing pupils to shoot clay pigeons with live ammunition during an event organised by instructors from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation to help educate youngsters about the countryside.

Mr Fairclough told Headteacher Update that the paper had never spoken to the school and that the report was “completely inaccurate".

“Parents specifically send their children to this school because of the provision and are very supportive of it," he said. “We had no complaints from parents or the community. The children were taught by a man who taught Prince William and Prince Harry to shoot and everything was done really well. It was all about conservation and gun safety whereas the article was talking about weapons and going on a hunting trip."

Elsewhere, West Rise has been widely praised. Local schools frequently seek advice on keeping animals and starting a Forest School while the University of Brighton and Canterbury Christ Church University regularly send PGCE students to study “an example of innovation in education".

Ofsted has been complimentary too. At the school's latest inspection in 2013, inspectors praised its Room 13 project and also noted that the school “makes very good use of its unique site".

“The key for us every time has been to show the inspectors evidence that what we do benefits the children," said Mr Fairclough. “This is achieved through careful and accurate data analysis. We are able to show through our data that our provision, from the arts through to animals and Bronze Age activities, has a direct impact on raising standards across the curriculum.

“Our SATs results improve year-on-year and our internal data shows exactly the same thing. Crucially, it is the children themselves who are able to articulate the impact our school and activities have on their learning."

There is no doubt that the school's innovative approach is having an influence on youngsters' achievements in other ways too. A 16-year-old former student is about to start agricultural college while a current pupil who first tried archery at West Rise is winning awards in inter-school competitions.

Despite the school's myriad achievements, Mr Fairclough and his staff are still brimming with ideas. Next on the agenda are plans to launch paddle-boating on The Marsh, to create “Strawhenge" (Stonehenge made out of straw), and to give children the opportunity to row a replica of the Dover Boat, the wooden prehistoric boat discovered in 1992, across one of the lakes. The school also hopes that pupils will be able to work with local archaeologist Chris Greatorex, who directed the original excavation of the site, on a new, small-scale excavation on The Marsh.

Mr Fairclough explained that having “the right sort of attitude" and “believing in yourself" are key when it comes to launching ambitious projects like these. “I know it's not conventional to do some of the stuff we do," he said. “We are the only school with a herd of water buffalo as school pets but once one has these in place it becomes part of the identity of the school. People love the school because of these things – and because the children are inspired, creative and outside a lot.

“I absolutely love my job. I have always been an idealist and I remember that when I first went into teaching people were slightly critical of that. They said 'you'll soon get jaded'. But I've always been inspired by the kids and felt that the environment and energy of primary schools (make them) a brilliant place to be." 

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist

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so you think its ok to teach children to kill squirrels & pigeons,.Learn to hunt and all about hunting ??
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I think it is wonderful these children are so lucky to have the opportunity to have hands on lessons on how people survived before all the gadgets came to make life EASY well done to all involved

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