A primary that incorporated pigeon racing into its curriculum found that giving challenging students the opportunity to look after their feathered friends improved behaviour and attendance – and even led some to meet the Queen, as Carly Page reports
When you think of pigeon racing, you probably associate it with flat cap-wearing bird fanciers or a bygone era where such winged creatures – now widely viewed as rat-like pests with a fondness for chips and sandwich crusts – were used as messengers.
And you would certainly be forgiven for thinking the rearing and racing of pigeons had almost died out in the UK: the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA) reports that membership numbers slipped to around 19,500 in 2019, down from 20,000 in 2018 and a dramatic fall compared to the 60,000 figure recorded back in 1989.
But one school wants you to see pigeon racing differently. St Andrew’s CE Primary School in Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, is giving the sport a much-needed lifeline, and it’s proving as much of a coup for the pupils as it is for the dying art of pigeon racing.
The school began racing pigeons back in February 2018 after accepting an invitation to join the Oswaldtwistle Homing Society. It was provided with a free starter package courtesy of the RPRA, comprising a junior loft, which is now set in an open lawned area in the school’s grounds, and 10 young birds.
In its letter inviting St Andrew’s to get involved, the Oswaldtwistle Homing Society explained how racing pigeons can be linked to the school curriculum relating to history, geography and maths, improving children’s understanding of the First World War, map reading and calculating distances; specially trained pigeons can fly between 600 and 700 miles in a single day and can reach speeds of up to 92.5 mph.
The school leadership team was fully on board with the curriculum benefits but had another motive for accepting the offer, according to Paul Burns, the assistant headteacher at St Andrew’s.
“The main reason we first started pigeon racing was because we had children really struggling with behaviour,” says Burns.
It’s relatively common to use extracurricular activities, which take place outside of the classroom, to try to work with young people on their behaviour. Often, this involves giving that child responsibility for a task that involves a degree of nurture. Gardening, for example, is very popular.
Burns, though, thought the pigeons might work, so the school set itself up as a home for pigeon fanciers and put the children most in need of behaviour support at the helm.
“We selected children from Year 6, boys and girls, and we put them in charge of the pigeons,” says Burns. “They’re responsible for looking after the pigeons, feeding them, cleaning them out and wing stamping.”
Wing stamping, required by the RPRA for all racing pigeons, involves each bird being marked with the name, address and telephone number of the person who’s responsible for looking after it, in case it is reported as a stray.
“The Year 6 pupils also get younger children helping out on a rota system, so it’s a really inclusive initiative,” Burns adds.
The children are responsible for training the pigeons, too. This takes approximately two months and involves allowing the birds to fly around the loft before they start to learn the area within 30 miles of the school. From there, Burns and the pupils put the birds in baskets and take them on training runs up to 50 miles away to prepare them for races. Those races happen every Saturday from April to September, with children involved as much as they wish to be.
It may sound like the school spends a lot of money on feed and petrol, but Burns says the costs are actually minimal to get started. He concedes, though, that when you get into elite pigeon racing, then you can spend a little more.
“You can buy a bag of corn for £20 and, with a few extras like food and water tray, that can last you the season,” says Burns. “It can be more costly if you start to add vitamins and tonics to the food and water, and pay to send them on training throws twice weekly.”
He argues that these costs are more than worth it, though, because the pigeons have had a huge impact at the school. For example, the behaviour of the selected children from Year 6 has improved markedly.
“A pupil working in the loft last year has really turned their behaviour around – they are in high school now and this time last year, I didn’t think they would make it that far,” Burns explains. “We also recently had a pupil who had really poor attendance. We told them: ‘If you’re in school on time, you can help out with the birds.’ They are an animal lover, and this incentive has helped them to really turn things around.”
Beyond behaviour improvements, the school has won a number of national awards for its pigeon racing, including the first-ever RPRA Schools Champion prize in 2019. What’s more, students have even been to visit the Queen – one of the sport’s most famous supporters – at her Royal lofts in Sandringham to collect two racing pigeons to add to their growing collection.
“The children loved the fact that we were able to receive two birds from the Royal lofts and still now, the children ask which are the royal birds when they visit the loft each day,” says Burns.
“They named the birds King Edward the Bird and Queen Elizabeth. We are very lucky that those birds have now been able to have offspring so we are currently raising a young prince in the loft. This is something that the children find funny and are really proud of.”
Curriculum benefits also abound, with maths, science and history angles all covered in interactions with the pigeons.
There are risks to keeping the birds, of course: homing pigeons may be susceptible to predator attack from birds of prey or other animals while in flight and, owing to the amount of physical training required prior to racing, they can suffer from exhaustion and illnesses.
Burns explains that while the school’s birds are luckily “very healthy”, as verified by the RPRA, which works closely with St Andrew’s, it has lost a couple of birds during racing. Burns says that the children were warned this could happen and explains that it is a necessary life lesson.
“The children were concerned but I don’t think they were upset,” he says. “We did discuss the risks beforehand, so they were aware that this could happen.”
Growing the flock
The RPRA is now actively trying to get more schools to race pigeons and has succeeded in getting seven in total involved. Richard Chambers, a former teacher who works as a development officer at the RPRA, is leading on the plan. He says that the dangers of pigeon racing are part of why schools should embrace it.
“It’s a balance. We don’t want to wrap these kids in bubbles, as they are going to get exposed to the way of the world, [but] we’re trying to do that in more of a controlled environment,” he explains. “The biggest danger of pigeon racing is predators, but [the children] have to do a whole module on this in science, and instead of it being in a book, we can potentially demonstrate that and show them the reality.”
With the curriculum and life lessons, plus the behaviour benefits, Chambers has high hopes for pigeons in schools. “It’s for pupils from all backgrounds – including students with SEND [special educational needs and disability] and those with additional needs – and we’ve found that it gives them a better focus. It’s hugely beneficial,” he says.
Burns agrees and is keen to help spread the word. “Our main priority is trying to make this widespread, given the benefits we’ve seen here at St Andrew’s,” he says. “Having ownership and being able to look after the pigeons, clean them out, feed them and train them is teaching the children responsibility and it’s really beneficial for promoting social interaction. They are really getting something out of it.”
That’s pretty coo’, if you ask us.
Carly Page is a freelance writer
This article originally appeared in the 20 March 2020 issue under the headline “School’s flight of fancy proves a bit of a coo”