Funding a community amphitheatre

Our new amphitheatre is a cultural resource for all

‘As a maintained comprehensive for 11-16-year-olds in a relatively affluent rural area, our school isn’t eligible for many grants. Despite that, we have secured funding for high-profile projects simply by being tenacious and plugging away.

One route we have focused on is the very real need for cultural and leisure facilities in our local area. As a community school, we act as a focal point for people living nearby, and being able to provide resources that everyone can share and benefit from is very much part of that. Indeed, our most recent Ofsted report commented: ‘The school makes an exemplary contribution to the community; it is a community school in action as well as in name.’

Several years ago, we secured bids totalling almost £1million from the Sport England Big Lottery Fund and Football Foundation for a sports centre and floodlit all-weather sports pitch. We demonstrated a local need for the new school facilities – for example, we could meet community demand that the busy leisure centre down the road was unable to cope with. Our not-for-profit partner, Freedom Leisure, now runs a 500-member gym and sports centre at our site. It generates around 60,000 visits each year; the contract contributes £20,000 annually towards the eventual cost of pitch resurfacing, and also covers the cost of utilities and maintenance. The model has been highlighted by Sport England as an example of best practice in school-owned community facilities.

More recently (and on our third attempt!), we received Sport England funding for a new dance studio, allowing us to put dance on the curriculum for all students and provide an additional facility for local people of all ages. So when it came to the exciting ambition of creating an amphitheatre, I was confident we would get the funding one way or another.

'We planned for it to be a facility that we could use all year round, and that meant costs of around £85,000.'

My vision has always been for our school to build on its Ofsted ‘outstanding’ status by providing a rich, holistic curriculum that inspires all students. Our curriculum offer includes on-site Forest Schools alongside a broad range of experiences, trips and activities.

I came up with the idea for an amphitheatre after visiting one to watch Romeo and Juliet in a Brighton park on a school theatre trip. The atmosphere there was brilliant, and our students came away unbelievably inspired. I realised that, with the backdrop of the South Downs, we had a wonderful site for an amphitheatre of our own. Such a facility would have the potential to be used in many different ways, from a social space to outdoor lessons, school productions and a rehearsal venue for local amateur dramatics groups. It could also be a unique theatrical venue to hire out to touring productions and community groups, and one that would raise our profile across the region (as well as raising income through lettings).

We planned for it to be an all-weather facility that we could use all year round, and that meant costs of around £85,000. I wanted to avoid allocating funds from the school budget since this wasn’t an essential facility, so a mix of funding was needed to deliver the project. I am indebted to Nicki Burston, former PA to the senior leadership team, whose tenacious approach ensured the success of the fundraising effort.

Fortunately, the idea of an amphitheatre captured people’s imagination. Even at the early stage of planning permission, Hassocks Parish Council offered to put in £10,000. We also received £4,000 in grant funding from the Lewes-based Southover Manor Trust, and a further £10,000 from the Garfield Weston Foundation. To this we added £20,000 from our leisure facilities contract, as we had just resurfaced the all-weather pitch and could begin the ‘sinking fund’ the following year.

Our brilliant PTA (Downlands School Association) donated a year’s worth of funds (£20,000) from their summer and Christmas fayres, and other fundraising activities. The local rotary club donated £500 and West Sussex County Council gave us £1,000. We raised £2,000 through crowdfunding and £2,000 from advertising on school folders.

The local garden centre kindly provided 30 sleeper benches for the amphitheatre at cost price and we raised additional funds by asking people to sponsor a bench.

The balance was covered by income raised from school improvement work and a small amount of school fund money – Gift Aid from parental contributions.

With such goodwill, it took just over a year to get funds in place and the amphitheatre opened in July 2019. The students were very excited to use it, and from the outset there was huge buy-in from the local community. We had open-air theatre events lined up for summer 2020, which unfortunately had to be cancelled. However, the amphitheatre has provided additional outside classroom space to help us manage social distancing, and it was a great space to hold our Year 7 transition programme.

Our school is growing and as a result we are extending the catering operation to include a catering pod with picnic benches near to the amphitheatre. We’re really looking forward to making the most of this incredible venue soon.’

Mark Wignall, headteacher, Downlands Community School, Hassocks, West Sussex (1,200 pupils)