…there really will be a big surprise, says Alex Gray, for in an increasing number of locations around the UK, the farmhands are schoolchildren
Daniella, aged ten, says that she goes there when she's feeling a bit lonely, because she feels as if she is with friends. Louisa, also ten, says she leaps out of bed on a Monday morning to go and take care of the animals before school. Eleanor, 11, says she loves the responsibility of looking after them and that if she is feeling sad, they always cheer her up. Daniella, Louisa and Eleanor are all ‘farm ambassadors’ for the school farm at Court de Wyck Primary School in Claverham, North Somerset. The school farm, just over a year old, began with five chicks hatching in an incubator and now keeps hens, rabbits, guinea pigs and pigs. The farm ambassadors look after animals on a rota system, so while some, like Louisa, come in early to feed and water the animals, others go out at lunch and break times or at the end of the school day, to make sure the animals have enough food and water for the night. One lunchtime they do a clean out.
Court de Wyck and others like it are part of the Schools Farm Network, which was originally supported by the Department of Education's Growing Schools Programme, started in 2000 with the aim of reintroducing hands-on farming and horticultural education opportunities for all pupils. From the post-war heyday when over 2,500 schools had farms or horticultural units, the number of school farms had dropped dramatically by 2006, with only around 66 remaining. “There was a decline in rural issues as a whole,” explains Ian Egginton-Metters, School Farms Network co-ordinator. “Rural studies disappeared from the national curriculum, which had became more and more prescriptive. Then there was a period of time when a lot of school land was sold off and headteachers couldn't see a rationale for maintaining a farm. We set up the Schools Farm Network as a mechanism for mutual support primarily between school farm teachers, and to raise their status and profile.” There are now 102 farms in the network, ranging from those keeping a few sheep and hens in a small area to the largest, a 120-acre mixed farm at Warriner School in Banbury, Oxfordshire. And the number is set to grow, because there is compelling evidence that food growing in schools improves both the academic achievement and the health and wellbeing of children.
“We think it's a hugely valuable resource,” says Sue Baber, Farm Manager at Court de Wyck. “One of the main things it gives the children is a sense of responsibility and commitment. It's a really positive experience for them, it helps their social skills and the farm gives them opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have.” A recent report published by the Food Growing in Schools Taskforce looked at academic research into outdoor learning over the previous decade. The report, entitled Food Growing in Schools, confirmed that school food growing activity was indeed hugely beneficial. In particular it encourages and facilitates learning, especially in science; develops a wide variety of life, enterprise and employment related skills; improves both awareness and understanding of the natural environment; promotes health and well-being in relation to diet and nutrition; supports school improvement and development; and strengthens communities and interaction.
“We are gradually changing the culture surrounding school farms,” says Ian. “Once upon a time they had the reputation of being where you sent the disruptive pupils, or pupils with special needs. In fact, it's the complete opposite – all pupils in a school benefit from the experiences and learning afforded by the school farm.”
Lucy Reynard, Farm Manager at Cardinal Wiseman Catholic School and Language College in Coventry, couldn't agree more: “At any given time any teacher can use the farm to enrich the curriculum,” she says. “It's a way of learning that engages pupils at every ability. I'm a firm believer that the best way to learn something is to see it, or use practical activity as a vehicle for teaching something. The farm is a fantastic resource for everyone, not just those that are disengaged with education.” Cardinal Wiseman School is located in a thoroughly urban area, and every patch of land has been put to use to grow food and rear animals. The farm has graduated from growing vegetables and raising chickens to keeping goats, ducks, rabbits, Shetland ponies and rearing pigs for slaughter. “Pupils walk from a maths lesson to an English lesson passing sheep on one side and more sheep on the other,” says Lucy. “It's a part of school life and everybody has a part to play – if a chicken escapes, a pupil picks it up and puts it back in the pen.”
The school runs a weekly farm club and every autumn holds a farmer's market to sell its produce, with other local producers also invited to set up pitches. “The farm is going from strength to strength,” says Lucy. “Because the more that the global food crisis is in the press, the growing realisation that we need to know where stuff comes from. If we can give young people the knowledge to make informed decisions, even if they just walk into a supermarket and buy veg not from Kenya but from Britain, or pick eggs that they know are free range, like the ones in school. Some of the young people are amazed when we start getting potatoes out of the ground.”
Reconnecting children with their food is a key part of the motivation behind school farms. Within the findings of the Food Growing in Schools report, 73% of schools said that teaching young people about nutrition is a factor which motivates their food growing activity. Sue Baber at Court de Wyck says that right from the very beginning the whole purpose was to help children understand where their food comes from. “We give the animals the best quality of life before they go off to slaughter, and the children understand this. We also grow vegetables and fruit, they watch things grow, they learn about germination, and other science.”
In fact, there is also a significant link between food growing and good or outstanding performance in Ofsted inspections. The Warriner School in Bloxham, Oxfordshire, is the largest on the School Farms Network and was awarded a Good in its last inspection. “From aspiring doctors and vets to those who aren't academically successful in a classroom environment, the farm gives schoolchildren access they wouldn't otherwise have,” says headteacher Dr Annabel Kay. “English lessons use the farm to inspire creative writing, maths lessons use the farm in problem solving; lessons are always really interesting, because they capture the children's imagination. Children also gain additional skills, like self esteem, teamworking, taking their own initiative, understanding about food. In this day and age we need to be providing children with these sorts of skills.”
“The tide is definitely turning,” says Ian. “There is a far greater interest now from schools in urban areas and also in primary schools. I defy any teacher to say that they could not teach at least a portion of their subject through a farm. There is lots of evidence now that says that the farm is a calm influence on children, and is a collaborative influence – kids work much better as a team when they get back in the classroom. One of the hurdles we still haven't overcome yet is the view that it's fine for a school to spend money on art materials and not expect to get a return, yet they could spend the same on animal feed and actually get a return. Actually, the farm for most teachers is not going to be an additional responsibility, it's simply a different context for learning.”