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  • Writer's pictureIan Forster

A Walk on the Wild Side

In the first article of the new year Senior Consultant Ian Forster brings his experience to bear in a lighthearted article touching upon how nature affects us in schools, matters landing on the desks of school Heads, Business Managers and Governors.

In the first article of the new year Senior Consultant Ian Forster brings his experience to bear in a lighthearted article touching upon how nature affects us in schools, matters landing on the desks of school Heads, Business Managers and Governors.

Looking around my office on the first day of my first overseas appointment in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, I opened the cupboard and started taking the files off the shelves, as one does. Financial records, Board minutes, and other archived and current information. I was surprised to see a network of tubes crisscrossing the wall at the back of the cupboard, and even more surprised to find out that these were termites and they had not only created these “tubes” but had eaten a significant amount of my newly acquired school records. Those were the days before we lived in a digital world of course.

During the following 6 years in Oman I got used to de-fumigating staff accommodation, dealing with infestations of ants and termites, wadi dogs encroaching into the school grounds and creating pandemonium, and students discovering such delightful things as scorpions on the playground. I am sure that many others face the same issues.

It was not my first experience with nature though. Previously, in a UK state school, I had learned the needs of maintaining an environmental area, complete with a pond, frogs, newts, and many other forms of life. It was fun dealing with groups of students conducting various environmental science experiments until the day that I was presented with a collection of milk bottles each of which had a live frog placed inside - getting them out was a puzzle similar to the proverbial ship-in-a-bottle.

Planning areas of the school grounds to be environmental areas, either for environmental science purposes or to provide different habitats for wild creatures, or both, is interesting but can be challenging. I have been impressed with a number of initiatives over the years, probably one of the first I saw being the settlement pond at the Anglo-American School of Sofia around 2007. Their campus has been much developed since those days.

Not everyone has a campus which lends itself to such a venture because of location or size, and some schools then create opportunities for students to experience nature in different ways, such as “forest school” initiatives, with trips off site. It is fun as a school leader to take part in these activities. My mantra is always to get out of your office and take part as often as possible. It is a great joy to see the expression on elementary age students when a squirrel appears, seemingly arranged by you for the occasion, and to learn about a forest going to sleep in the autumn and waking up in the spring.

While I was head of school in Moscow, we used to watch a small colony of beavers in the adjoining stream. They had been a gift from the Canadian government in the past as a token of friendship to the Russian government. One wonders if they are still there now that diplomacy is at such a low ebb, or whether they have been targeted as “enemies of the state” in similar fashion to the nearby Anglo-American School.

Going back to the wadi dogs and the scorpions, of course one of the main - if not the main - responsibilities of a school is to create a safe environment for its students. And staff, parents and visitors of course.

The safe environment extends well beyond the realms of child protection to building hazards, activities, catering, transport, and naturally wild and dangerous creatures. On my first visit to Braeburn School in Nairobi, around 2013, I was amused to see a warning notice to stay clear of groups of warthogs passing through the grounds. I would note that on my journey to the school through the suburbs of Karen I had seen notices by the road about a lioness appearing in peoples gardens.

And while on wild animals none of us like to mention the V word, vermin, but privately we do need to admit that a constant check needs to be kept, and certain control routines adhered to. Schools are not in a vacuum unaffected by things such as mice, who come in from the cold over the winter, even rats, dare I mention the word. And of course, cockroaches, that seemingly indestructible creature who survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and the radiation of Hiroshima. I cannot be the only school head who has had to cope with hysteria at the sighting of a cockroach in the cafeteria and had to instigate measures more stringent than a Code Red procedure.

At this point we will not say much about head lice as it always starts me scratching. Suffice to say that many of us have routinely had a conversation about head lice only living on clean hair, while secretly wondering why it always started with X child in class Y…….

On hygiene, in one of my schools I fought a battle for some years with local residents who thought they had a God-given right to let their dogs use the school playing fields for their exercise and ablutions. I waged a war of words through newsletters and the local press about the health perils which had no effect at all before I solved the issue by erecting 2-meter-high fencing around the site. That stopped them! That also stopped the local residents tipping their garden refuse into the environmental area too, but that is another story.

In many countries there has to be an environmental survey before building works are approved. There is concern over such things as bat colonies and rare plants and creatures. In the UK many a project has been halted or cancelled due to the appearance of a protected animal or plant, planners tremble at the thought of a great crested newt or something similar being found.

An interesting question arose last semester in one of my current roles as governor of a state elementary (primary) and middle school in the UK from developers building next to the school. Their works were being held up due to a badger sett, would the school continue hosting the badgers? After long deliberation - there were indeed many aspects to consider - we governors agreed, and with the enthusiastic support of the business manager a new sett has been built, complete with CCTV, so the whole school can follow the daily life of the badgers.

I wish all our readers a positive and fulfilling 2024, free of too many challenges of nature!

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