Get your hands dirty

29th February 2008 at 00:00

Looking for ways of getting pupils involved in the community? Heidi Moulton explains why her school digs gardening

As a biology teacher who has always kept animals such as lizards and snakes in school, I am a firm believer in nature's power to enthral.

So when thinking about vocational options for some of our more vulnerable Year 10 pupils, whose difficulties range from behavioural issues to Down's syndrome and cerebral palsy, the idea of gardening came up.

I have always wanted a polytunnel, an outdoor structure made of polythene for growing plants that need a warmer temperature. By coincidence, a local environmental group called Wirral LA21 Network were launching their Drop into Gardening (Dig) project for local schools ( Thanks to them, I was able to order my dream polytunnel and the project began.

Initial signs, though, were not encouraging. Measuring 48ft in length and dauntingly empty, the tunnel was delivered to the school in September 2006, and of the 10 special needs pupils I assembled to be involved, only one really wanted to do the course.

That first term was difficult - we had no plants, no raised beds, no tools, and then there was the fact that green stuff does not grow well in winter. But a professional horticulturist from LA21 came to visit us every Wednesday afternoon, and we were soon getting on with making hanging baskets, planting more than 1,000 daffodils on school grounds and building up raised beds.

We also ran an Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network (Asdan) skills course and made several visits, including one to an organic farm. At every stage, our young gardeners were consulted and involved in all decisions, including which produce to grow. We held regular tasting sessions, despite the fact that some were reluctant to try even a cherry tomato.

A year on and the changes have been dramatic. There are now 100ft of raised beds, a lush and well-stocked polytunnel and a sensory garden. We have grown a huge variety of foods and have been marketing and eating them. We sit together and sample the produce and pupils are proud to take home the things they have cultivated.

Staff have learnt alongside our pupils, and lively discussions over tea at 2pm are about future crops, caterpillars and all the other things gardeners think about.

Pupils who had severe problems communicating now enthusiastically debate who gets to sell our legendarily misshapen organic cucumbers. One pupil with Asperger's syndrome, who started the course not liking plants and hated getting dirty, is now our resident potato expert. Another has developed such leadership skills he has been appointed foreman and is proudly doing an amazing job. The course is popular and pupils are queuing to join.

We now use the polytunnel as an outdoor classroom, a behaviour management tool and a focus for healthy eating. There have been courses run for members of the community, and we have helped the local church and primary school with their gardens.

Heidi Moulton is a science teacher at Woodchurch High School, Wirral, Merseyside.

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