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17th October 2008 at 01:00
Pigs, sheep and bees, not to mention crops, are thriving on school farms. After decades in the doldrums, they are reconnecting children with the life cycle, says Nick Morrison

Floss likes wearing bin bags on his horns. The other thing he likes doing is jumping up at you. It's his way of testing you. "If you don't show him you're the boss, he'll think he is. You just have to push him down," says 11-year-old Matthew, as he does exactly that.

At least it's not as painful as Joseph's approach, which involves butting. Anyone holding food is particularly at risk, as Georgia, also 11, found to her cost. Five times in one day, in fact. "It hurts," she says. Even the memory makes her wince.

Along with Candy and Ginger, Floss and Joseph make up the goat herd at Edwalton Primary. The school, on the outskirts of Nottingham, is one of a growing number with a farm on site, part of a resurgence that is reversing a 60-year trend.

The number of school farms fell from several hundred at the end of the Second World War to just 62 two years ago. But numbers have started to rise in the past few years, partly prompted by an increased interest in sustainable living. According to the School Farms Network, there are 71 school farms in the UK, with another 30 in the process of being established. About three-quarters of the total are in the state sector, defying the stereotype that farms are a luxury that only independent schools can afford.

Edwalton's farm was created in 1972 with a collection of rabbits and hens, although recent years have seen a rapid expansion. As well as eight hens, four goats and Rabbit Island's 13 inhabitants, it has five pigs, a sheep and three bee hives. Rhubarb, potatoes, beans and sweetcorn, among other things, are grown on the school's allotment.

"In this age of computers, there is a need to interact with the environment," says Brian Owens, Edwalton's head for the past seven years.

"There were children gawping when we hatched our own chickens - that shows that need is still there."

Volunteers from Years 5 and 6 take part in a rota to look after the animals, making sure they're fed, watered and mucked out before and after school during term-time, and in the holidays. Brian believes this experience forms a crucial part of the school's ethos. "It enshrines the values we want to see in a primary school, where children grow up to respect the environment and care for animals," he says. "It is part of a culture of looking at what we can do for the community."

Two of the pigs - Curly and Wurly - are kune kune, a rare New Zealand breed, and are kept as pets. But the three saddlebacks in the neighbouring pen have a different fate in store: when they are fully grown they will be off to the slaughterhouse. But the children - at least in the upper part of the school - are unsentimental about what lies in store for Higgledy, Piggledy and Wiggledy.

"We're not sad," says Georgia. "But we haven't told the younger ones because they won't understand. We'll tell them when they're older, because we want them to know where meat comes from."

It would be easy to keep all the animals as pets, but without the knowledge of where our food comes from it is impossible to appreciate what is involved. "The children need to know that if they eat meat, it doesn't just come in shiny packets from the supermarket," says Trish Gilbert, a higher level teaching assistant and the school's environmental education co-ordinator. "It is a living creature that has to be killed so we can eat it."

Edwalton's farm is largely funded by the school's parents' association, which raises about Pounds 3,000 a year towards running costs. Support also comes from local farms and businesses.

The chickens are too young to start laying, but the school expects to get about a dozen eggs a day to sell to parents, and last year sold 220 jars of honey, although bee mites mean two of the three hives have been empty this year. Produce from the allotment is used in the school kitchen - rhubarb in particular is a popular addition to the menu. As Matthew says, on those days "we don't have food miles, we have food metres."

Great Waldingfield Primary in Suffolk is one of the latest recruits to the school farms movement, with the arrival last year of two egg-laying hens. Fed on non-meat scraps from the kitchens, the hens lay six eggs a week each - Monday to Saturday with a day off on Sundays - that are used in cookery lessons or sold to parents.

"The children learn to care for the hens and have the responsibility of feeding them," says Angie Jones, headteacher. "There's always a fight to collect the eggs, especially if they're warm."

Pupils also tend a raised bed in their garden area, growing beetroot, peas, broad beans, potatoes, carrots and runner beans. The vegetables are sold to visitors, along with sunflower seeds, with the older children running the shop.

"Before, we were looking at beetroot and they didn't know it grew underground. Now they know it comes out of the ground, and eggs come out of chickens," says Angie.

For primary schools, farms can tie-in with cross-curricular issues, food, sustainability, the environment. But for secondaries there can be a more direct relevance. Responsibility for the farm at Cardinal Wiseman School on the outskirts of Coventry is largely given to pupils on related courses: Years 10 and 11 doing a BTEC first certificate in animal care or a GCSE in land and environmental science, and Year 12 students on the BTEC first diploma in animal care.

Like Edwalton's, Cardinal Wiseman's farm began with a few chickens and rabbits. But 15 years on, it has expanded to include lambs, pigs, goats, ponies and alpacas. The lambs and pigs go to slaughter, coming back as sausages or lamb burgers to be sold in the school shop, while fleeces from the alpacas are spun into wool by the technology department.

A vegetable garden concentrates on heritage crops, such as highland burgundy and salad blue potatoes, as well as asparagus, shallots and onions, while fruit trees include pear and cherry. Produce is sold to staff, or is given to the children to take home. "Kids often don't like eating vegetables, but if they grow it themselves, it's different," says Sean O'Donovan, assistant head. "It is developing healthy eating, and working in the garden is better than going to the gym."

Back to the land

The resurgence of school farms is to a certain extent thanks to the Growing Schools initiative, started in 2001 in the wake of the foot-and- mouth crisis to try to reconnect children with the environment, the importance of the rural economy and links between food in the supermarket and the countryside.

"It has been a combination of circumstances, although Growing Schools helped raise the profile," says Ian Egginton-Metters, co-ordinator of the Schools Farm Network. He cites a heightened interest in sustainability, concern over the source of our food and a realisation of the benefits of school farms as among the key factors.

If this weren't motivation enough, an Ofsted report in May, looking at progress towards meeting the Government's target of all schools being sustainable by 2020, found that awareness of the issues was limited and sustainable development often involved only a minority of pupils.

The SFN's creation in 2004 raised the movement's profile still further and helped to end the isolation felt by some teachers who doubled as farm managers. The network has also produced resources to help schools thinking of setting up or expanding a farm, the latest being the Get Your Hands Dirty pack. About 1,800 copies have been sent out so far.

"Schools are looking at farms in a holistic way and recognise there is a whole-school benefit, rather than just being one teacher's pet project," Ian says.

For more information visit network.html.

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