"You want the head's study?" the receptionist asked. "It's past the ducks and the alpaca and then it's on the left."Welcome to Cardinal Wiseman School, one of the few state secondary schools with a mini-zoo on its premises.
Last night, the school, a stone's throw from Coventry's bustling city centre, won the prestigious award for the greenest school in the country at the annual Teaching Awards screened on BBC 2.
It all started when assistant headteacher Sean O'Donovan, who trained as a rural studies teacher, launched a school farm 14 years ago. Then, it was just a case of a few rabbits and chickens. Now it has expanded to include the alpaca, Shetland ponies, chinchillas, pigs and even boa constrictors. The snakes came from HM Customs and Excise, which has been so impressed with the way the school looks after animals that it is on its list as a possible sanctuary for animals that have been smuggled into the country and are in emergency need of a new home. In fact, the school was offered 60 boa constrictors, but diplomatically put it to HMC&E that it would prefer to cope with just two.
Looking after animals is a central feature of the school's curriculum and many of its pupils harbour ambitions to become involved in animal welfare when they leave school. Some are employed by the school and look after animals in the holidays and at weekends while continuing with their studies.
Cardinal Wiseman has become a regional centre for students who want to study for a new science GCSE in land and the environment and will pioneer the new diploma in land and environment-based studies, among the 14 flagship new qualification to be rolled out by 2013. "A lot of young people now like to learn by doing," said headteacher Helen Knight, "Sitting in a room with a book is not their future. "Primary schools also come here to animal trails."
The school has won recognition for its work from Prince Charles who was presented with a scarf made of alpaca wool when he visited. The alpaca are sheared by the students.
Cardinal Wiseman also has its own garden, producing strawberries, rhubarb, plums, cherries, sweetcorn, potatoes and many other vegetables . It has helped sow the seeds of healthy eating among the pupils. It has also won an award for making its own sausages. But it is the work with animals that has won the school praise from Ofsted, the education standard watchdog.
Mr O'Donovan said: "I think if you can get kids to take responsibility for caring for animals, the chances are they will become responsible adults."
Judges of this year's competition also praised the improvement in the efforts of schools – notably St Edward's Church of England school in Rochdale and Edwalton in Nottingham – to promote green values. "In the opinion of judges, any one of the three would have been winners in previous years," they said.