Getting down with the 'kids'

15th July 2011 at 01:00
A Dollar smallholder who shares her love of working with animals with local pupils has won a national award, writes Julia Belgutay

For Jane Edwards, winner of the Educational Supporter of the Year category at the Scottish Education Awards, the children who come to her farm near Dollar from neighbouring Strathdevon Primary really do come first.

At Wester Dollarbeg Farm, her organic smallholding, she welcomes groups of up to 25 children from the school twice a week to introduce them to the world of farming and give them an opportunity to experience learning outside school.

Her desire to work with them was born of her own unhappy experience with the education system. "I didn't find out I was dyslexic until I was 30," Ms Edwards says. "I got bullied in school and my school life wasn't much fun at all."

She feels lucky to have discovered a talent for working outside and with the animals she has always loved. Through her work with schools, she wants to make sure the children in her community are given a similar opportunity.

So for the last two years, groups of children from different classes have travelled up to Wester Dollarbeg from Strathdevon Primary, to go on farm walks and get to know the pigs, goats, chickens and other animals, to plant trees, or to sow and harvest crops which are sold to make the project sustainable.

She spends a further three half-days per week working with children from other schools and with young people with additional support needs. While that often means starting early and finishing late to fit in all other work on the farm, this is a small price to pay for the benefit to them, she believes.

"Knowing you can make a difference if you work a little bit longer is not an awful lot to ask. This could change their lives; it could make them not think they are rubbish at everything. That will stay with them through the system," says Ms Edwards.

On their farm visits, children learn about the journey their food takes from the farm to a supermarket shelf, and to make the connection between the animals and the meat they eat. They also spend time in a natural environment at a time when, Ms Edwards says, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for them to do so.

From a list she has compiled of the kind of tasks she thinks would be beneficial and interesting to the children, teachers plan projects for each year group to fit in with the relevant Curriculum for Excellence outcomes.

"Anything you have got on a farm you can bring a learning experience to," Ms Edwards explains. "Do you want to measure the trees we have planted and then come back and measure them again? Do we want to count the eggs? Do we need to measure the milk out for the goats? For a lot of children, it makes the connection as to why we learn these things in the classroom."

The regular visits, she says, allow each child to develop a relationship with the farm. She now opens her farm to the public on Sundays and during the holidays, so that children can bring their parents along and keep in contact with the animals, even when they are not involved in school projects.

Although she already has weeks where five half-days on the farm are taken up with school visits, for which she receives no payment, Ms Edwards has great plans for the future. She is hoping to raise funds to build a classroom and to find a way of transporting the children to and from the farm so that the project is less dependent on the community bus.

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