Four legs good but expensive

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore visits the special school which can no longer run its farm

Graham, the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig rescued from a tower block, now wallows in a sea of mud and nettles at Uffculme School Farm. But not for long.

The governors of this special school in Birmingham have decided they cannot afford the Pounds 30,000 a year it costs to keep Graham and his fellow animals: three goats, two sheep, two ponies, one donkey, two geese and sundry turkeys and hens. But the suggestion that Graham might be turned into toothsome chipolatas is wide of the mark. All the animals will find homes in a sanctuary by the end of the summer.

Less certain is the future of Chris Jones, the farm manager, who is threatened with redundancy. Unison, the public service union of which he is a shop steward, has condemned the decision to close the farm and urged Birmingham City Council to take it over.

Uffculme has problems enough to surmount without trying to support a menagerie. A 100-pupil primary school that caters mainly for autistic children, it was put on special measures last November after a highly critical Office for Standards in Education report. Bob Dowling, who has been acting head of the school since December, has been "addressing with a vengeance" the curricular problems identified by the inspectors. He says the school needs all the money it can get to tackle the shortcomings of buildings and equipment highlighted in the report, from lack of computers and covered walkways to an inadequate heating system, to say nothing of peeling paint.

"I could spend half a million pounds here tomorrow and there would still be work to be done," says Mr Dowling.

He says the farm is in an unsuitable position and unusable for many of the pupils. It lies at the bottom of a very steep slope and has to be approached by the road leading to the staff car park. Difficulty of access also hampers visits by other schools. An inquiry by the governors between a year and 18 months ago concluded that the farm could not be made financially viable.

"We cannot compete with a properly-set-up city farm," says Mr Dowling. "Holy Trinity Farm had 1,600 kids through in the first quarter of this year and we had none."

Edwina Langley of the Birmingham branch of Unison disagrees about the farm's potential. "It's a wonderful spot," she says. "You think you're in the middle of the country although it's bang in the middle of the city. It just needs a little bit of money to develop it." She agrees, however, that it is too much for a small special school to support.

Mr Dowling says the farm is one casualty of local management of schools, when a cost previously borne by the council had to be picked up by the school.

He is particularly incensed by Unison's suggestion that the animals might have to be destroyed. As a farmer's son, he would not countenance such a thing.

"They're all going to good homes in good animal sanctuaries," he told The TES. "Every single one will be looked after."

One animal, however, sounds as if it might need special measures. "One of the geese is just lethal," says Mr Dowling. "Seriously, it's just attacking a visitor. She's running up the path."

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