Grounds for improvement

An Engaging Places network 2008/09 case study | 21 August 2009

Key stages 1 and 2
Design and technology, art and design, citizenship

Barmby on the Marsh is a tiny, rural village in the East Riding of Yorkshire with picturesque cottages, an ancient church and a river running through. At the heart of the community stands an old Victorian schoolhouse with a small playground and a field shaded by an enormous horse chestnut tree.

What did the teacher want to achieve? To increase students’: involvement with the local community; sense of social responsibility; ability to work as part of a creative team; staying power to see a long-term project through to its conclusion.


These idyllic grounds are central to the life of the whole village, as well as to the 40 or so children who attend Barmby on the Marsh Primary School. As a result, when the school decided to improve its grounds the project turned into a real community affair.

Inside out
The school’s vision was to create a seamless transition from indoor to outdoor learning and to provide a new space for the village to use. ‘We feel we have a duty to continue the tradition of the school being at the centre of the community,’ explains teacher Bev Sharphouse. ‘From the outset the project has been a team effort, led by a steering group of local people and supported by a mentor from the East Riding of Yorkshire’s School Improvement Service.’

Photo of two models

Two creative models © Barmby on the Marsh Primary School

A space running along the side of the school field was underused and, as one student said, ‘We decided a garden would look spectacular’. With the help of the village’s legion of gardeners, the students planned, designed, dug and planted.

Having cleared the land of trees and shrubs, winding paths, seats and arbours were added. To help them choose plants that would thrive in the conditions, the students visited a local nursery and talked to staff there. Come rain or shine, parents could be seen hard at work to bring the garden to life.

How was the learning organised? Students from across the school worked with the local community to: design and develop a new school garden; design and build an outdoor sculpture; design a summerhouse for use by the school and community.


A model approach
The finishing touch was creating a sculpture for a space at the centre of the garden. Once again, the students led the design process. They began by investigating the work of artists who make sculptures, such as Anthony Gormley and Andy Goldsworthy. Inspired by this research, they drew initial design ideas and translated these into small models, experimenting with how to create sweeping lines from corrugated card.

Having voted for their favourite design, the students helped to make a full-scale polystyrene model that was used by a local artist as the basis for making the final structure out of wood. Excitement mounted across the school as builders came in to dig foundations and the sculpture was concreted in place. The students helped the artist sand, polish and varnish the final piece, taking great pride in their work.

What was the impact? The students: have forged new links with the local community; are much more aware of the outside environment; have developed skills in teamwork and design.

Today the structure – five sections arched high like the bones of a whale – is regularly used as a space for play and drama. The students feel real ownership of their sculpture and enjoy using something they have created.

Think big
Fired up by this success, the school decided to take the students’ outdoor design work a step further. The brief was wide ranging – to design a building that could serve as an outside classroom, a playroom, a tearoom on school garden party day and even a pavilion for the village cricket team!

Under the watchful eye of the headteacher, a qualified architect, the students embarked on in-depth research through books, magazines, catalogues and the internet.

Having decided that what the garden needed was a summerhouse, they carried out detailed sketchbook work. They learnt to draw different views of buildings in perspective and produced a range of development drawings and collages of their designs. Building on their earlier modelling experience, they went on to produce confident 3D architectural models using card, papier maché and paint.

The students are now eagerly awaiting the construction of their favourite design – a red, black and white building with a porch, gable roof and clock tower – on the chosen site in the garden.

Photo of female student painting her model

Students desiging their models © Barmby on the Marsh Primary School

Maintaining momentum
Seeing this real-life project through from initial ideas to completion has been an empowering experience for the students. As one commented, ‘I am getting better at designing real things. I used to think it was something only grown-ups could do but now I know children can do it too.’ All have taken great pride in creating places that will make a difference to the school and community for years to come.

The school is now planning to create a new outdoor learning area alongside the school building. As Bev Sharphouse says, ‘We don’t want to lose the momentum! We’ve discovered the value of maximising every possible space for learning.’

Want to do something similar with your class?
We have collated a list of activities, organisations and resources for you to use with your students in developing designs inspired by architecture and the built environment.

The Engaging Places network
This case study comes from Barmby on the Marsh Primary School near Howden, East Yorkshire, who worked with the East Riding of Yorkshire Schools Improvement Service through the Engaging Places network for 2008/09.

The Engaging Places programme is run by CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and English Heritage. It supports teaching and learning through buildings and places.

Engaging Places realises that young people identify deeply with where they go to school and live but they are not always able to adequately communicate their sense of place to others. The physical face of many neighbourhoods is changing fast and schools are being transformed at an incredible pace, despite the recession. These dramatic changes will either involve or exclude a whole generation of young people.

Engaging Places is responding to this situation through the Engaging Places network. This is made up of schools and learning providers across England that work together on projects which seek to equip students with the tools to articulate and critically analyse the places where they live and learn.

The schools involved in 2008/09 followed a process of disciplined innovation using the QCA co-development framework – a rigorous approach to curriculum change.

Read more about the and view the Engaging Places videos.

All Engaging Places 2008/09 network case studies

A 360-degree journey - Dover Grammar School for Girls, key stage 4, AS level

Tales from the Palace - St John’s CE Primary School, key stage 2

A window on the past – Cardinal Newman Catholic School, key stage 3

Street investigation - Ospringe Primary School, key stage 2

Libraries by design - Thamesview Vocational Centre and Riverview Junior School, key stage 2, C&BE diploma

A new view on design - Graveney School, key stage 3

Resurrecting the past – St Pius X Catholic High School, key stage 3

Groundbreaking geography - The Royal Grammar School, key stage 5

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