Last reviewed 22 April 2021
Now that pupils have returned to school following months of remote learning, Michael Evans considers the educational benefits of school gardens and farms and reflects on the ways that they can help to improve the wellbeing of pupils as they learn about issues of diet and nutrition, and the importance of the environment and sustainability.
Background and revival of interest
At the end of the 1990s, educators were concerned that many children had no idea about the origins of their food. There were many tales of children not knowing that milk did not miraculously appear in the supermarket in plastic containers, but actually came from cows, or that peas grew on plants rather than originating in plastic bags in the supermarket freezer.
A number of educational initiatives were developed, such as healthy schools, sustainable schools, eco-schools, the Forest School movement and Building Schools for the Future. Interest in school gardens began to revive and, in 2007, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) launched its Campaign for School Gardening. Within a very short time 11,500 schools had signed up and fourteen years on the RHS campaign is still very much in existence. Registration is free and there are a wealth of downloadable resources including information sheets, practical activities and lesson plans that link into the English and Scottish curriculum.
Advocates of school gardens pointed out the range of direct educational benefits, such as:
improvement of physical and mental well-being and the development of life skills such as confidence, teamwork and communication, and a sense of responsibility
opportunities for enrichment of the school curriculum, with links supporting areas of the National Curriculum
enhancement of literacy, numeracy and oracy skills
encouragement of a better and healthier lifestyle with knowledge of the environment and issues of sustainability.
For a school embarking on vegetable growing for the first time, there is information on how to start; organising the plot, be it an allotment or a raised bed, and what sort of vegetables should be grown. For schools short of space, containers such as chimney pots, old sinks, baths and even dustbins are suggested. The importance of annual crop rotation is also dealt with in order to balance nutrients in the soil and reduce the incidence of pests.
Many vegetables and fruit trees are easy to grow, but it is important to choose crops where harvest times fit in with school terms. It is also a good idea to choose things that children like to eat. Potatoes, peas and beans are a good start.
A key to the success of a school garden is obviously dependent on the enthusiasm of the school staff. There will be time issues involved and these will require a degree of careful planning. It is important that these plans are ongoing and not just for one-off activities.
Issues related to priorities sometime need to be overcome, such as resistance by some teachers and TAs that their place is in the classroom and not in the garden.
Examples of working gardens, and even farms
Although the majority of school gardens tend to be in primary schools, this is not necessarily the case. Carshalton Boys Sports College has nearly 1300 pupils and is situated in the middle of one of the largest housing estates in Europe. On a small scrap of land a well-established allotment garden was established for growing fruit and vegetables. Produce contributes to the fresh food that the college chef prepares each day, and this has undoubtedly influenced the school’s Food for Life Silver Award.
Some schools go even further than simple fruit and vegetables and have animals. At St Anthony’s Catholic Primary School in Hampshire, after someone picked up a copy of The Smallholder’s Handbook: Keeping and caring for poultry and livestock on a small scale, a whole new world opened up.
There were a number of important initial issues to consider, perhaps the most important being the need to ensure that there would be sufficient staff capacity to care for the animals once weekends and school holidays had been taken into account. These issues were overcome, and the school now has a mix of pigmy goats, chickens, ducks, bantams, tortoises and rabbits.
Other schools go even further. West Rise Junior School near Eastbourne has 120 acres of land, including an area of marshland and two lakes. In addition to chickens, pigs, sheep, ducks and goats, it also has a small herd of water buffalo.
The School Farms Network was set up in 2004 and it reports that there are now more than 120 school farms in the UK, and more are being created every year. Approximately 2% of are in Preparatory schools, 27% in primary or junior schools, 48% in secondary schools, 7% in primary/secondary schools and 15% in special needs schools. The average size is about 13 acres.
All of these school farms provide opportunities for pupils to gain experience of farm livestock, with varying proportions of the student population being actively engaged in practical tasks.
A major problem with respect to school farms is having to care for the animals when school is not in session. This is where boarding schools have the edge over day schools. A number of independent boarding schools have their own farms.
Bredon School in Gloucestershire is described as a dyslexia friendly independent day and boarding school for pupils ages from 7 to 18 that is a big advocate of outdoor learning. It has a full working farm of 35 acres with a variety of breeds of pigs and sheep, South Devon cattle, mules, ponies, turkeys, hens and geese.
Pupils are able to study animal and crop husbandry, horticulture, livestock production and animal welfare in addition to workshop skills such as vehicle and machinery maintenance. Many follow courses leading to academic qualifications and subsequent careers in agriculture or animal care.
Milton Abbey School in Dorset is a day and boarding school for pupils from 13 to 18. It has a farm with a variety of animals including sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and guinea fowl. There are also horses and ponies, with pupils encouraged to bring their own. Sixth Formers study for Level 3 BTEC Equine and Countryside Management.
In many of these schools there are opportunities for older students to study for various qualifications, the most common being BTEC Levels 1 & 2 in Animal Care, and City & Guilds Land-based studies.
Keeping it simple
Most schools will have neither the space nor the expertise to accommodate large animals, but nearly every school can find space for a school garden. Often it is best to keep it simple but growing their own vegetables and then eating them can be a wonderful and enlightening experience for children, especially once they learn that the spotlessly clean supermarket potatoes were once covered in dirt when they were dug from the ground.
A possible cloud on the horizon
Environmental issues, and the need for pupils to learn about a good and sustainable diet, are now regarded as being a high priority. School gardens and farms admirably cover these areas in a practical manner, but they require a firm commitment of time and resources. As we all know, the current climate of education is centred very much on academic achievement and the need for schools to meet specific targets.
With stretched budgets and curriculum pressures, school gardens run the risk of being regarded as an expensive luxury. Their loss would be a tragedy of major proportions.
Concerns for the environment and sustainable living led to a renewal in interest.
There are definite educational benefits in having a school garden as well as benefits to mental health and general wellbeing.
Getting started needs thought and there are sometimes problems that need to be overcome, but there are many examples of good practice.
School farms can lead to good career paths.
It is often best to keep it simple.
Will stretched budgets and curriculum pressures lead to an uncertain future?