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Global Learning in Practice: Clarawood Special School

Location: 18 Clarawood Park, Belfast, BT5 6FR

Global Learning Lead Teacher: Andrew Bradley

Join Date: May 2015


Date of case study Interview: February 2017

Key themes: Community connections, learning about the environment, project work

Clarawood Special School caters to pupils with social, emotional and behavioural needs from across the wider Belfast area. There are 27 full-time and 12 part-time primary-aged boys attending the school, which is based in a residential area of East Belfast. Class sizes are necessarily small, with a number of classroom assistants for each year group. For the last two years, the school has been participating in the Global Learning Programme (GLP). Throughout this time global learning within the school has been ably coordinated by Andrew Bradley, who was one of the first teachers in Northern Ireland to attend GLP training.

Global learning involves participatory experiential learning approaches and offers students the chance to explore issues from varied perspectives. At our training in May 2015, Andrew was shown various group activities which can be used to introduce pupils to global learning. These were mostly for larger classes so Andrew realised he would need to adapt ideas from the course so they could be used successfully with a handful of children who have specific learning needs.

Developing a global learning project

It was clear to Andrew that he would need to do something very practical in order for global learning to be relevant to his boys. He liked the idea of developing a global learning project that incorporated World Around Us themes, while at the same time helping his pupils learn life skills. He was also keen to use the school’s outside space in a way that would enable the boys to take a very ‘hands on’ approach to learning about recycling and growing their own produce. Sustainable development is one of several concepts which form the core of global learning.

Andrew found the design of a greenhouse online, which used recycled plastic drink bottles for the building material. This was just the sort of project he was looking so he set to work with the boys in his own KS1 class. There was a lot to do, including modifying the greenhouse design to suit their needs, sourcing and collecting the necessary materials, building the greenhouse and then, finally, deciding how it should be used once constructed. See this planning document for the many different types of learning involved in the project.

Getting to work!

Andrew and the boys’ first task was to gather the huge number of bottles required. The boys made flyers asking for assistance and delivered these to the surrounding community. Some individuals got very involved; ensuring the boys soon had enough bottles, which in turn reduced the amount of rubbish being placed in bins in the local area. This activity piqued the interest of many in the community and resulted in other materials for the greenhouse being donated, such as tarpaulin and bench tops.

Washing and cutting the bottles was a time-consuming exercise, but helped with the boys sense of ownership of the project. Cut bottles were threaded on to bamboo canes to create transparent, insulated columns. These were then fixed side by side to make panels, which were secured on to a wooden frame.

There were problems with various aspects of the construction. Often the children didn’t have the foresight to predict difficulties, but the ‘just do It’ approach that Andrew took provided excellent opportunities for the pupils to figure out what went wrong and then do a bit of reverse engineering. When they didn’t get it right first time, rather than losing emotional control and going into crisis the approach was very much ‘How could we do this better?’ , a valuable life skill for anyone to learn!

An additional element was added to the project through developing the garden area around the greenhouse as well. Teaming up with a local business, Hillmount Garden Centre, provided Clarawood with lots of seeds, bulbs, seedlings compost and plants to get the garden started.

As part of Waste Week, Andrew led the boys in upcycling old garden tools and materials into something else to develop a sensory section to the garden. A series of new features were added:

  • Old tyres were transformed into planters.
  • Old tubing secured to the garden fence was used to develop a water wall which drained into a mud patch excellent for sensory play.
  • Scrap metal was used to create a sound wall with chimes and beaters
  • Plastic tubes were fixed together to make a garden seat

Andrew has become a regular visitor to the Play Resource Warehouse, where businesses deposit useful waste materials in the Scrapstore, which can be accessed mostly free of charge to schools and community groups. In addition to this, nearby businesses now think twice before throwing stuff away, with local builders and community groups offering the school all sorts of useful materials for free.

Benefits to pupils

The finished greenhouse is not quite a thing of beauty and the garden is still a work in progress. However, the educational opportunities provided by these new additions to the school have been wonderful, inspiring those boys involved in the initial project and other pupils throughout the school, who see getting outside to do gardening as a big motivating factor to work hard in class. Pupils are encouraged to keep on task in other areas of learning to extend their time in the garden.

Most of the boys come from the city, with some having only a narrow experience of natural environments or a limited appreciation of where their food comes from. Through their time in the garden, they can now experience nature first-hand. Comments from the children have shown Andrew how beneficial this can be. There is an apple tree in the garden and one boy was fascinated to find out not only that apples grow on trees, but that they will fall from the trees, rot and go back into the earth if not eaten. Another asked "Why are there no bees?", leading to good discussion on the importance of bees and the current challenges they face because of climate change and habitat destruction. Andrew has found that by explicitly discussing global learning themes as part of everyday teaching, he can help his boys see the links between themselves, their local community and the international community, helping them feel interconnected with others and the planet.

Behavioural management of children at the school can be a daily and exhausting challenge, using up a lot of time and energy. As well as being an engaging practical learning environment, the garden provides numerous emotionally regulating sensory experiences for the pupils and allows them to develop a real sense of pride and ownership. The fresh air and work involved in maintaining the garden have the added benefit of helping to regulate children with trauma and other issues. Growing things, looking after greenspaces and experiencing nature first hand has been shown to be very beneficial for our emotional and mental health - whether we are a child or adult.

The garden has become something of a talking point amongst both staff and pupils at the school. What started out as a recycling project for one class has morphed into the development of a sensory garden enjoyed by whole the whole school. Other teachers see the benefits for the children and themselves and Andrew is hopeful that this sort of outdoor learning will become more general practice. Though they might be some way yet from being self-sufficient, the grow your own spark has also definitely been ignited at Clarawood!

More good news

Through his participation in the GLP, Andrew became aware of funding opportunities from the Big Lottery Fund and has since secured a grant to develop the school garden further. We look forward to seeing the new features soon!

“I’m very glad Clarawood became involved in the GLP. What started off as a small project within the school has become something much bigger due to the enthusiasm of both staff and pupils. It’s been a great journey so far and we’ve achieved a lot along the way.”

- Global Learning Lead Teacher Andrew Bradley

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