Case study: Innovative school facilities

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Bon appetit! The shipping container diner at Aldingbourne Primary School (Image: Supplied)

As far as innovative facilities projects go, Aldingbourne Primary School perhaps takes the gold medal – from a diner made from shipping containers to a double decker bus-based breakfast club. Emma Lee-Potter takes a look

The sound of Rock Around the Clock reverberated around the new school dining space as the teachers and pupils danced to Bill Haley’s famous rock ‘n’ roll hit.

It was back in September and everyone at Aldingbourne Primary School had gathered to celebrate the opening of the school’s stunning 1950s-style American diner.

Aldingbourne, an oversubscribed one-form entry school just outside Chichester in West Sussex, doesn’t do things by halves. Instead of choosing to build a costly extension to house its new eating area the school bought four shipping containers, welded them together and created the Busy Bee Diner.

Headteacher Liz Webster decided to hold a 1950s day to mark the grand opening of the diner, which boasts red and white booths, tables and stools and a smart black and white chequerboard floor. A year 6 boy, Alfie Drake, cut the ribbon and the 210 pupils and staff, all dressed up to the nines in 1950s outfits, sipped celebratory milkshakes. Hits by Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and His Comets blared out of the jukebox and the school took to the dance floor.

The project is just one of the ways in which Ms Webster and her staff and governors have devised exciting, creative and cost-effective ways to make the most of the school site.

Aldingbourne’s innovative approach to facilities began in 2014 when Ms Webster realised she needed to create a separate space for quiet time and support work. The school was built in 1975 and its semi-open-plan design mean that the six classrooms have no doors or dividing walls.

“We looked at having an extension built but it would have cost too much money,” she explained.

Instead Ms Webster, who joined the school 25 years ago and has been head for 17 years. came up with the idea of buying a bus and after searching online for “double decker bus” she spotted one for sale on eBay in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

“I contacted the people who owned it and they said there was lots of interest so I literally got in my car, drove straight there and bought it.”

The bus cost £7,000, plus another £7,000 to secure the foundations and fixings. The school launched a mini-breakfast club for pupils to come in early, charging £1 per child, and this has already covered the entire cost of the bus.

Attraction: The double-decker breakfast club at Aldingbourne Primary School (Image: Supplied)

The bright red Busy Bee Bus, which has Aldingbourne’s bumble bee logo on its side and views across the fields, is now an integral part of the school. The lower deck has a big table for group work and the upper deck is kitted out with tables and the bus’s original seats. The floor is covered in a jigsaw puzzle design, complete with motivating quotes like “it is better to be beaten trying than win by lying” and “if you can dream it, you can make it happen”.

“The bus has been ‘Aldingbournised’,” said Miss Webster. “We put it on-site during the summer holidays and the children were blown away by it when they saw it.

“They think this school is the most exciting place in the world because there are lots of lovely things for them to do. The year 6s use it as a chill bus at playtime and at lunchtime our librarians go on and it turns into a reading bus. The children take their reading bags and sit and read. It’s a quiet space for children who don’t want to be in a busy playground.”

The success of the Busy Bee Bus inspired Ms Webster to embark on other projects: “It made me realise that there are other options than paying £175,000 for an extension that you really can’t afford. That’s what made us think of the diner.”

The school was badly in need of a dining space. After free school meals for all infant children were introduced by the coalition government in 2014 West Sussex County Council installed a kitchen at Aldingbourne – but the school lacked a dining hall where children could eat their hot meals.

“We are really big on PE here and I wasn’t happy about giving up our school hall,” said Ms Webster. “We do a lot of PE, gymnastics and dance and I didn’t want to lose an hour a day out of the hall.

“We started to explore other ideas and I looked at things like railway carriages and Alpine cabins. Then I went to London and saw a restaurant made out of shipping containers. I thought ‘that’s a really good idea’ and at the same time two of my parents, Zoe Hazelden and Mel Postma, came forth with the idea of turning shipping containers into a 1950s diner.”

The school community loved the idea and the PTA team immediately started fundraising for the £45,000 cost of the 80-seater diner.

A parent who works for event production company GTMS offered to design and build the diner, Rolls-Royce donated £2,000 for the jukebox and Saywell International, a Worthing-based aircraft company, donated more than £7,000 from a Goodwood track day to pay for six 1950s booths.

A group of parents called Mick’s March walked round the school field for 10 days, covering 1,000 miles in the process, to raise money for the diner and for the Sussex Snowdrop Trust, a charity that provides nursing care at home for children who are terminally ill.

Eating together: Inside the shipping container diner (Image: Supplied)

“It was amazing how everyone got on board with the whole project,” said Ms Webster. “The result is breath-taking. It looks like a proper restaurant. We had an email from a parent after the grand opening saying, ‘my daughter came home from school and said it was the best day ever in her life’.”

Now the Busy Bee Diner is complete, Ms Webster and the Aldingbourne team are working on a new project. The school grounds already have a castle, a rock for rock climbing, a ramble route around the perimeter and a tunnelling area made of plastic tubing (the children are equipped with helmets and torches and do problem-solving activities) but the next plan is for a “mile a day” track around the school field.

The school has started fundraising and Ms Webster is confident that the track will be ready by the summer term. Each classroom has a jar to collect pennies, which will raise £600, and a host of fetes and events are planned. The idea is that the children will assemble at the track at 8:45am every day and run three times around – a mile in total – before lessons begin.

“We try and make sure there is lots for children to do,” said the head. “That way you don’t have any behaviour problems at playtime – and we don’t. If you put 210 children in one area and there’s nothing to do you’re going to have issues, whereas if you space activities out and give them the freedom to move around the school it really helps. The children are trusted to walk around the perimeter of the school on their own at lunchtime and they know the rules. They know that if they misbehave it gets taken away – but none of them do.”

Ironically, Ms Webster did not enjoy school when she was young – but that has made her all the more determined to make sure her pupils do.

“One of my big beliefs is in giving children as many opportunities as you can,” she said. “They only get one chance at life and if I can offer them lots of opportunities then hopefully they’ll go out and try them later in life.

“When I was growing up I didn’t like school at all – so I’m determined as a head that every child enjoys school and enjoys learning and leaves Aldingbourne School really happy. If I’ve done that then I’ve done my job.”

Aldingbourne’s tips for big projects

  • Only take on one big project a year and ensure it’s something you can actually achieve. “Don’t overload yourself with loads of different projects,” Ms Webster explained.
  • Make sure you have the support of your governors: “The governors here are very supportive because they know I’m a head who sees things through.”
  • Get everybody involved, including the school council, the PTA, other parents and local businesses too: “It makes everything more achievable. You’ll be surprised by how many people there are out there who can help. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Everybody works together here. When we’ve got something that needs doing everyone comes together and helps. That’s how we’ve been able to get the bus and the diner. We have painting days where the parents come and paint the school, gardening days and maintenance days.”
  • Engage your pupils with the project: “Our big project this year is to get a mile a day track around our field. I’ve already been to a residential activity centre that has a track with really good matting so I’m going to get some of the children to test it out.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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