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  • Posted by: Educators Wales

Ysgol Bro Dinefwr: Looking to the Future

‘The answer is always yes.’ Adopting an innovative, forward-looking ethos to its educational strategy, Ysgol Bro Dinefwr, a bilingual secondary school located in Ffairfach, Carmarthenshire, has spent the last few years diversifying its hands-on approach to learning through the creation of Outdoor Learning Developments. Centring its initiative on the new national curriculum being rolled out across Wales, Ysgol Bro Dinefwr’s multipurpose and cross-curricular learning area provides a prototype example of how collaboration between different departments of the school, as well as with local business stakeholders, can successfully respond to a range of 21st century challenges.

First hosting timetabled lessons in September 2022, after three years of novel research and development on the project, the school aims to capitalise on the transformational capacity of the developments in improving students’ and staff’s mental health whilst simultaneously addressing sustainability issues. Specifically reflecting on the loss of metacognition and self-regulating learning approaches during the pandemic, the project aims to support students to think more explicitly about their learning. At Ysgol Bro Dinefwr, Ian Chriswick, Assistant Headteacher and Coordinator of Outdoor Learning Developments, spoke to us passionately about the school's dedication to provide outdoor education. Continue reading to see what we learned about the most recent development.

Why did Ysgol Bro Dinefwr decide to build these Outdoor Learning Developments?

Primarily founded upon the principle of supporting the rollout of the new curriculum in Wales, the Outdoor Learning Developments provide an opportunity for the school to cater to students of all abilities, backgrounds, and ages. They further allow the incorporation of joint-up approaches within the curriculum whilst also appreciating the value of project-based learning.

What progress has the school already made in constructing the Outdoor Learning Developments?

Already boasting the construction of an outdoor classroom built using sustainable materials, as well as a performance stage based on the school’s cooperation with expressive arts departments, the students and staff at Ysgol Bro Dinefwr have worked diligently to ensure that the project meets its aims of transforming the school into a carbon-neutral hub.

Enhancing the educational capacity of the Outdoor Learning Developments, the wild ponds created across the project have further provided opportunities for practical teaching of the local ecology through comprehensive studies of the pond ecosystem as well as of the species of flora and fauna present within the environment. Crucially, this runs hand in hand with the school’s partnership with Magnificent Meadows Cymru in developing a wildflower meadow on the site, further bolstering the opportunity to learn about the biodiversity of the area.

In addition, the creation of a water capture and irrigation system provides the opportunity to create a hydroponic setup in the future, potentially incorporating such hydroponics projects into the school’s curriculum. In the longer-term, engaging students with the environment and inspiring a love for the natural world is what ultimately assists conservation efforts in the future since education is where progress towards net zero must start; this is exactly what the establishment of the Horticulture Club aims to achieve!

With the improvement of traditional educational outcomes, however, arises the opportunity for the students and staff to get their hands dirty with the creation of a polytunnel and 15 raised beds where learners have been busy planting a range of fruit and vegetables, ranging from broccoli and tomatoes to lettuce and sweet peas. On a broader scale, the planting of 44 fruit trees on the site will hopefully provide the opportunity to make jams and other products!

What plans are there for future developments?

In the long-term, there are plans to position two weather stations on the site to assess and track pollution levels. These stations could collect live data to monitor air quality in and around the school with the aim of being able to analyse temporal trends. The school hopes that such a proposal would facilitate interdisciplinary research projects whilst also promoting computer science teaching through the use of micro bits, specifically by working in collaboration with local farmers. Such partnerships are crucial in the growth of the Outdoor Learning Developments, and they stretch even further beyond the intended weather stations: there are also plans to work with the Welsh Beekeeping Association to create a beekeeping area. Doing so would undoubtedly encourage cross-curricular projects evaluating the importance of bees in the ecosystem whilst stimulating promoting self-development by giving the students responsibilities associated with the hives.

Further, there are also plans to move towards animal care through the incorporation of a duck and chicken run on the site. Not only would this allow the school to deliver a level 3 course in Animal Care for students (which would be offered as an alternative qualification to A Levels), but it would also aid in its overall drive for sustainability. All of these future developments are in conjunction with proposals for: a pizza oven which will use the produce grown on site; a carol service at Christmas; a sensory garden for Canolfan Cothi which serves pupils with ASD; and the potential creation of a peace garden with willow trees.

How have outdoor learning developments impacted your own teaching or professional development?

Being a maths teacher when I began the project, I had neither the time nor the authority to affect things as quickly as I would have wanted. Fortunately, an assistant headteacher post came up which I was lucky enough to get and then the project was able to progress quicker. As far as professional development is concerned, I now have experience in project management, funding applications, working with HEIs, building links with the local community and also far greater knowledge of horticulture, landscaping and eco-construction.

Why do you enjoy the outdoor element of learning?

It is a more natural and healthy environment for learners and staff to work in. They are more relaxed, which is going to be increasingly important as we recover from the pandemic and also as a response to climate anxiety.

Do you have any advice for other educators looking to create outdoor learning spaces?

Have a clear plan, cost it and then engage with the governing body and local community to make it happen.