Learning 'til the cows come home

Continuing our summer series on school gardens, Harvey McGavin looks at a Kent school farm that is raising standards as well as pigs and tomatoes.

Darius is a pig in a poke. Slouched in a pen at Brockhill Park school farm, his snout idly sniffing the air, he looks like a boar without a care in the world. But a boar's gotta do what a boar's gotta do, and the trouble is, Darius isn't doing it. Unless he starts showing an interest in the sows very soon, warns Donna Hawkes Baines, he's going to be sausages.

Ms Hawkes Baines is the agricultural technician at Brockhill Park, a secondary school set in rolling parkland near Hythe on the Kent coast, with its very own farm. She looks after two goats, 50 ewes, two rams, 150 hens and five suckling cows. But she likes the pigs best. "They're very intelligent," she insists. But even Darius isn't smart enough to know he'll soon be going the same way as his predecessor, Ronald the boar (as in Ronald de Boer, the Dutch footballer).

There's room for silly names but little sentiment in livestock farming. Despite Ms Hawkes Baines's fondness for the pigs, she knows the farm has to pay its way. Not so long ago, Kent had 20 school farms, more than any other county. Now it has just eight. Most have closed because they weren't, well, bringing home the bacon. Brockhill Park had a lean patch last year. Although foot and mouth did not infect any of the stock, restrictions meant nothing could move on or off the farm for seven months.

Now it has a healthy turnover of around pound;25,000 a year, mainly from selling livestock and produce from its Victorian walled garden. A plant sale raised a staggering pound;9,000 this year, and lambing day brought in another pound;3,000. But, like the farming industry in general, it is having to rethink its business. So Ms Hawkes Baines, her horticultural colleague Steve la Rue and rural studies teacher Ian Langley have put together an ambitious four-phase redevelopment plan for the farm.

The first phase involves restoration of the walled garden, built in 1868. The quarter-of-an-acre plot with twin greenhouses was virtually derelict when Donna Hawkes Baines put an advert in the parish magazine asking for contributions towards the pound;3,000 cost of refurbishment. To her surprise an anonymous parent of a former pupil phoned soon afterwards. "He just said, 'Who do I make the cheque payable to?'" says Ms Hawkes Baines, still hardly able to believe her luck. With the money, they have resurfaced the paths, laid out new beds and planted a cottage garden with poppies, hollyhocks and old favourites, such as corn cockle and bear's breeches, that would have graced the original garden. Pear, fig and other fruit trees are being trained up the high flint walls, under the expert eye of another teacher who is a keen fruit grower.

The frames and much of the glazing on the greenhouses are intact, but they need a complete overhaul. Even with the original boiler out of action, the heat inside is stifling - perfect for forcing gourds and marrows to fruit two months early in time for the Hampton Court Flower Show earlier this month. Brockhill Park's other contribution to the Growing Schools garden - tomatoes in hanging baskets - were raised in the two modern polytunnels, where the air is thick with the delicious aroma of dozens of tomato plants.

The main school building next door is a 17th-century manor house - complete with half-timbered staffroom - that for all its olde worlde charm has clearly seen better days. The school itself is set in 140 acres of downland, some of which is given over to a country park, which the school uses for grazing its sheep.

But the handsome surroundings don't reflect its intake, and a large proportion of the school's pupils come from socially deprived parts of nearby Folkestone. For many of them this is their first taste of farming, and the enviable outdoor facilities are a considerable attraction.

The school's young farmers' club boasts 85 members, and Ian Langley, who teaches the increasingly popular rural science GCSE, reckons 20 children a year out of an intake of 220 come especially because of the farm. "Some kids would not be at school if it were not for the farm," he says.

The farm is well used by other departments, too. Science classes can test out theories of growth or genetics, while art classes use animals for life drawings and plants for botanical sketches. Soon, other schools should be able to enjoy it as well.

Phase two of the redevelopment plan will see a stable block converted into a visitor centre, while plans to set up a farm shop and build a lambing barn for overwintering are the other long-term goals. "We have had to fight hard to keep it by diverting some of the resources," admits headteacher Tony Lyng. But now the farm is breaking even, and, financial considerations aside, the school considers itself blessed with a wonderful resource. "It's impossible to measure the value you get out of the farm," Mr Lyng adds. "It permeates everything. When you see the children involved in something like this, it is fantastic."

For some pupils, especially those who struggle in the classroom, helping out in the farm and garden has been the making of them. "You can see their behaviour improving week by week," Ian Langley says. Pupils are given responsibility for individual animals, and get the chance to take their prize specimens to agricultural shows. A colourful display of prize-winning certificates and rosettes almost covers the wall of one of the barns. Somehow, you just know that Darius's name isn't on any of them.

Ideas from Brockhill Park and 20 other school gardens around Britain featured in the prizewinning Growing Schools garden (see 'Friday' magazine, June 28) at the Hampton Court Flower Show earlier this month. This is being recreated at the Environmental Curriculum Centre, Eltham, in the London borough of Greenwich. The centre is a nine-acre wildlife site with a rich range of habitats. The charity Learning through Landscapes has its London office at the centre and the garden will be open to schools by appointment. Further information: www.brockhill.kent.sch.uk; www.ltl.org.uk

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