Damers First School is quite literally the place you wish you’d gone to school at. Your mother or father walks you to and from school, meandering through the great field, with green on both sides, as you chat along the way. You arrive calm, relaxed and flushed with blood flow, rather than being booted out of an idling car, by a parent who is rushed to move along, so other cars can inch forward. You park your bike or scooter in the Sustrans port, and then skip up the wiggly path, past the wildflower meadow into your school building, bumping into a friend or two along the way. Over half of Damers First School children arrive each morning this way (about 60%).

Once inside, after the morning formalities, you might be right outside again. You could be digging in the garden, or having a lesson in the forest classroom or whittling in the gazebo. Perhaps your teacher is reading Alice in Wonderland from her giant chair.

H.R.H. The Prince of Wales learns gardening tips from the Damers First School children. Nov. 20, 2017. Photo by: Tammie Barnes. (c) 2017. Used with permission.
H.R.H. The Prince of Wales steps into an outdoor classroom at the Damers First School. Nov. 20, 2017. Photo by: Tammie Barnes. (c) 2017. Used with permission.

The sky above and the green vista that spans the horizon across the Great Field give your thoughts a free and limitless air – mood enhancers that only Nature brings.

That is all by design, thanks to Catherine Smith (Damers Head Teacher), Edd Moore, (Damers Class 3 teacher and Eco Coordinator) and all of the parents, teachers, volunteers and students who contribute to creating and maintaining one of the greenest schools in the world – in every sense of the word.

Damers First School features:

Sustainable Transportation
Outdoor Learning Gardens and Classrooms
A Student Kitchen
Organic, Healthy Food
Empowered Activists
Conservationists, protecting even the mini beasts (bees, worms and bugs)

When you visit the school, it’s easy to see why the students at Damers First School feel so empowered and ready to change their world, something they are very much doing. The space itself is inspiring, full of motivating posters and photos and many of their own awards for their eco activism. The students led the charge to make theirs a plastic free school – a campaign which took a lot of resilience and letter-writing to the suppliers of the school lunch program, which all came traditionally wrapped in plastic. They have received countless awards, have been honored by Jane Goodall and have visited Clarence House, the London home of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. And yet many of the children at Damers come from quite humble, even challenging, backgrounds. 21% qualify for additional funding, and 17% receive free meals.

Jane Goodall with Damers First School children. Photo by Roger Marks Photography. (c) 2018. Used with permission.

Catherine Smith understands the challenges of her students firsthand. “I’m from Manchester, an area of high social deprivation. I come from one of the scariest areas of the city,” Catherine told me. School gave Catherine a chance to look beyond the circumstances at home, and imagine a better future, which inspires her to do that for her students. “That drives everything that I do,” Catherine said.  

Tom Amery-Mathews, the managing director of The Watercress Company and Brace of Butchers, credits Damers children and Ed Moore with motivating him to start Naked Brace – where customers can purchase bulk food, including milk, honey and local fruit and vegetables, using their own containers, without plastic. Tom grinned like a proud father when he told me that he is now assisting the children with a Boomerang Bag program, a program where the locals make reusable cloth shopping bags, which can be shared by anyone in the community.

Brace of Butchers and Naked Brace, a plastic free shop in Poundbury, Dorset. Photo c/o The Duchy of Cornwall. Used with permission

The awards and the support of local entrepreneurs might give the impression that creating this eco-school was easy, which is not the case. Edd Moore, who began the gardening and eco-program before Catherine was hired, works tirelessly, many times until early morning hours, with no extra compensation beyond his teaching salary.

Edd Moore. Damers First School Eco Coordinator and Level 3 Teacher. Used with permission.

Headteacher Catherine Smith has been challenged to make everyone a stakeholder, even when it’s inconvenient. Imagine having to convince your parents that they really can’t drive their children to school. What an upheaval that would create in most school communities! The reason more than half of the Damers First School children ride their bikes or walk to school is that Poundbury, where the school is located, was designed that way. Leon Krier was hired by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales to design a “sustainable” urban extension of Dorchester (Poundbury) that placed the pedestrian at the center of the design process. Thus, it’s easy for pedestrians and cyclists to get to their destination in Poundbury. There’s simply no space for a large queue of cars waiting to drop off their children at school.

Poundbury, Dorset in the early days. Leon Krier, H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and Andrew Hamilton. Photo c/o the Duchy of Cornwall. Used with permission.

Just as there is no room for cars or parking at the School, there was no room for a Student Kitchen in the school building plan. Catherine sat for hours with the architect shaving off a foot here and there in the other rooms to make room for the student kitchen. Outdoor learning and gardens teach children where their food comes from – a lesson that is completely lost if they cannot then prepare and eat the fruit (and vegetables) of their labors, and discover just how delicious fresh, healthy, organic produce is. The kitchen was essential to complete the big picture view of that learning. And that is the next phase of the curriculum enhancement at Damers First School – weaving whole picture thinking, inspired by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales’ book Harmony, into all of the curriculum.

As with many of the innovations and campaigns at Damers First School, making Harmony the thread that binds all of the lessons together was borne in the wee hours of the morning, as Edd Moore read the book. Catherine’s approach to the integration is to compare notes with Ashley Primary School, where the curriculum is fully integrated with Harmony, and to schedule an off-site with teachers where they can enjoy the Dorset countryside, and talk about why they are integrating Harmony. As Catherine explained to me, “There is so much beauty that is just swept over if you only touch the surface of the curriculum. Harmony is the logical message to be giving to children about the beauty of Nature, along with opportunities to just stand and stare.” Imagine discussing why Nature is a great teacher, from the confines of a classroom…

Damers First School is truly a child’s nirvana – far from the glaring fluorescent rote leaning of days gone by. In the decades to come, it’s easy to imagine one of Catherine and Edd’s students carrying on their great work, in the halls of Damers and even in the corridors of Parliament. It’s the natural outcome for U.K.’s most powerful green lobbyists.

The Earth’s alarm bells are now ringing loudly and so we cannot go on endlessly prevaricating by finding one skeptical excuse after another for avoiding the need for the human race to act in a more environmentally benign way – which really means only one thing: putting Nature back at the heart of our considerations once more.” H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, from his book, Harmony.