FIRE pits, camping and forest bathing are all likely to be on the timetable at a pioneering new learning hub that is set to become reality after receiving planning consent.

In what promises to be a significant expansion, the centre will allow Harmeny Education Trust’s grant-aided special school in Balerno, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, to accommodate children and young people past the age of 14.

The Trust provides residential support and teaching to youngsters who have experienced neglect and abuse, or had such traumatic family lives that they needed to be placed in care from an early age.

Situated in 35 acres of woodland, its new building will offer vocational classrooms, art spaces and a bike workshop, as well as multi-functional internal and external areas.

Nearly £1.2 million of the £1.95m funding target has already been raised and it is hoped work on the project, which has been led by Loader Monteith and SJM Architects, will be complete in summer 2022.

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Karen Eastwood, Harmeny’s deputy head of education, said: “At the moment we can provide our specialist education services for children aged five to 14, but we can’t keep them on after that, as we don’t have the facilities to deliver secondary education beyond S2.

“So you build all these relationships, you have them doing the work and then they have to go somewhere else.

“The new learning hub will allow us to expand what we do and enable us to work with young people beyond 14, and up to age 18.

“We’ll also be able to expand our day education service to provide learning programmes for up to 12 more young people from mainstream schools run by City of Edinburgh Council, aged between 12 and 16, who have disengaged from mainstream education.”

Forestry Journal: A graphic showing an art and design workshop at the planned hub.A graphic showing an art and design workshop at the planned hub.

Describing the planned hub’s learning environment, Ms Eastwood said: “Our school is based in about 35 acres of woodland and it’s a great site for children. Where the new building is going is full of trees and it will have big windows that will look out on to the woodland. The building will be L-shaped and, inside the L, there’ll be an area we’ll develop with features such as a fire pit and special seating.

“It will offer the relaxation of being close to nature and will include materials such as timber cladding and glass – so very different from the big concrete jungle you’ll get at many mainstream schools.

“One of our teachers is big on the idea of ‘forest bathing’, which is just going out and concentrating on one sound or looking at one thing, which the new building will be perfect for. It’s a place which will aid general relaxation and get rid of anxiety and stress.”

Ms Eastwood stressed relationship-building was at the heart of the Trust’s work.

“We hang in to hang out with the kids,” she said. “We work alongside them. It’s about going on a journey with a child – being able to listen and fully understand them.

“There are many reasons why children disengage in mainstream schooling and it’s individual for each child. You could be talking about school-phobics, individuals who’ve had a bad experience or they’re intimidated by the size of a school. Some kids just don’t fit in. It’s easier to settle in those children in a class of 6, which is what we’re able to offer here, rather than a class of 30. 

“And then there are things going on at home or in society more widely. You might be talking about a child or young person who’s a sole carer and they disengage at school because they don’t have the time with everything going on at home - whereas here at Harmeny we know their backgrounds and their strengths.”

This story originally appeared in The Herald.

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