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Struggling School turned around with the Help of “Open-Air Classroom”

Kensal Rise Primary School in the North West of London used to be a less than shining example of the British education system. According to Ofsted the standard of teaching was inadequate and the half acre of land surrounding the school was derelict and under-utilised.

This was until the Ark group and Chef Thomasina Miers took an active interest in turning the school around.

Miers initially came into the public eye by winning Master Chef. Since then she’s founded the Mexican food chain Wahaca. She lives just minutes from the school and regularly passes it when taking her children to the park.

Her fear was that the derelict land around the school would be sold off by the government as has been done so many times in the past. She wanted to prevent this while addressing recent concerns over the increasing rates of child obesity, and so created a safe space in which children could spend more time outdoors.

The Ark group is an international organisation with a reputation for turning underperforming schools around. They focus predominantly on children from poorer communities and run a network of 34 primary and secondary schools around the United Kingdom.

Kensal Rise Primary was a suitable candidate for their assistance. Ofsted reported that in 2012 the number of children in the school eligible for free meals was above average. The result was that in 2013 the school was taken over by the Ark group.

In September the three form primary school reopened under the name Ark Franklin Academy. The school was renamed in honour of Rosalind Franklin – a renowned scientist who contributed toward the discovery of DNA. This marked the beginning of new era for the formerly underperforming school.

Soon after new head teacher Janine Ryan took over the reins, Miers contacted her with a novel proposal. She suggested transforming the wasteland surrounding the school into an open-air classroom – incorporating this into the school’s curriculum.

Ryan was enthusiastic about the idea. Taking inspiration from international models, she set about planning the new garden. Many of her ideas are based on the Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden programme, which has been successfully implemented in more than 800 schools around Australia.

Statistics indicate that the number of children under age of five that suffer from obesity will increase from 41 million to 70 million by 2025. This is according to a survey conducted in over 45 European countries. It’s also estimated that 10% of British children between the age of 5 and 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Miers and fellow local mother Laura Harper-Hilton believe that giving children a chance to experience the outdoors and showing them where food comes from is a step in the right direction. This will help alleviate some of the problems caused by them spending too much time staring at screens. The two mothers teamed up to get the garden project at Ark Franklin Primary off the ground.

Their first challenge was to raise the £90 000 needed to fund the project. Through the efforts of parents and the local community they’ve achieved a lot of success in this regard.

By June 2016 they had successfully managed to transform the school’s concrete grounds into a flourishing garden with a biodome, where children grow a variety of vegetables and flowers. Plans are also underway to build a wormery, a fruit tree orchid and a kitchen with a solar oven.

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