How Dorothy the pig is helping pupils to learn

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The Independent Online

The main talking point for both teachers and pupils this week was whether Dorothy the pig had given birth yet.

Welcome to the world of Community School, the first state secondary school in the country to combine a specialism in maths, science and information technology with the study of rural affairs – and adopt a greener curriculum for its 1,400 pupils.

It was not just idle interest that prompted the questions. Dorothy the pig is a key curriculum resource for the school and lessons rely on her producing her piglets – so that they can weigh the piglets in maths and monitor their first steps in the world as part of a GCSE environmental science course.

Dorothy is also doing her bit to combat truancy by giving potential truants a reason for going to school, according to headteacher Isobel Bryce. "This is a very inclusive school and we certainly have our share of challenging students," she said. "They enjoy working with the animals and they really show an interest in them."

The school has introduced its unique specialism since Mrs Bryce arrived at the school four years ago. Rural affairs is a particularly apt subject for pupils, many of whom come from the farming community. The school is also only a few minutes' drive away from the centre of Plymouth, with its need for scientific and technical skills to serve its maritime industries.

The school was originally built to cater for around 600 pupils but its numbers have been pushed up by its increasing popularity. Despite falling pupil rolls in this part of Cornwall and the fact that it has to compete with parents wanting to send their children across the river Tamar to selective grammar schools in Plymouth, it is still oversubscribed. "I think parents just recognise we're a school that can cater for pupils of all abilities," said Mrs Bryce. The school was praised recently for its "outstanding" efforts to improve community awareness and involvement amongst its pupils, plus the wide range of extra curricular activities it offers. Mrs Bryce is also on the shortlist to receive the secondary headteacher of the year award at the annual Teaching Awards to be screened by the BBC next month. She was recommended for the award by her pupils. "She's a very good headteacher," said 17-year-old David Doidge. "Some of us sixth-formers can just walk in and get a five-minute slot to see her if we really want to talk things over with her."

It was Mrs Bryce who prompted the push for the new specialist status, immediately after her arrival. It should be stressed the new curriculum does not just rely on Dorothy the pig. The school also has ducks, hens and sheep for the pupils to study and a full-time technician to look after the animals. The environmental work, which includes a sensory garden, has been noticed by the Prince of Wales, who invited pupils to visit his Highgrove estate.

So has Dorothy given birth yet? Yesterday morning she was still in labour – four days after her due date. For now part of the new curriculum is on hold.

Saturday school for primary pupils

* Special Saturday schools are arranged for gifted and talented pupils from local primary schools to experience the new curriculum at Saltash.

The latest theme being tackled by the pupils is the study of earth science. Pupils from the secondary school are invited to help the younger pupils with their work. The Saturday pupils can use the school's facilities – its animal house and sensory garden – to study land-based sciences.

Many pupils at Saltash school opt for GCSEs covering environmental sciences and geology. The school also takes advantage of its idyllic setting – on the Cornish coast and overlooking the Tamar Bridge, as well as being within easy reach of Dartmoor – to mount an ambitious outdoor education programme.

"The whole process of education can be made richer and more meaningful by using the surrounding environment," its prospectus says. "The East Devon and Dorset coast is used by the science department. Our geography department uses Looe and Dartmoor in their programmes."

Trips abroad have also been arranged to study conservation measures in other countries. Last year, for instance, a group of pupils from the school went to Borneo.