Green fingers tend young minds

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Fiona Cauley used to use gardening to teach the national curriculum. Now she has landed her dream job, writes Hilary Wilce.

IT IS a cool March day in the manicured gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, Surrey, and Fiona Cauley is sitting on a bench in the wild area, contemplating the huge gulf between her new working environment and the hectic primary classroom she left last December.

"There has definitely been a honeymoon period. When I first came here, I couldn't get over how tranquil it all seemed and how beautiful."

But all honeymoons come to an end and life has gathered pace as 39-year-old Cauley has worked her way into her new role as the society's senior education officer, responsible for spreading the horticultural word among the nation's schoolchildren.

To help her there is a schools' membership scheme, currently running at 200, a newsletter, the RHS website, and the Green-

fingers Challenge, the society's gardening competition for young people.

She knows about this one first-hand, since her former school, St John's Meads Church of England primary in Eastbourne, came third last year for developing a neglected allotment.

"The most wonderful thing about it was all these grown-ups coming in and wanting to talk to the children.

"One of the judges said, 'what do you put down to treat the slugs?' And one of the children said, with great disdain, 'We don't do anything. We're organic.' "

Gardening has always been a thread in her life, something she has done in window boxes, allotments and any odd corner.

"My mother was a gardener and gave me that passion. I knew all the wild flowers when I was small, and collected them and pressed them."

In her first teaching job in East Grinstead, she started a gardening club and helped the children grow onions, radishes and sugar peas. Later, in Eastbourne, she joined a Victorian school with a concrete playground and a football pitch.

"And I just had the feeling that it was unfair to the children that there was nowhere to grow anything." But on an aerial photograph of the area, she spotted some abandoned allotments in a nearby niche of the Downs and took one over for the school.

With her class, she worked out ways of using the allotment as a resource for teaching the national curriculum - and un-teaching all the concepts they had got wrong in their heads.

"They would say bees go into plants to get honey and that, as far as they were concerned, was the top and tail of it.

"But in the garden you could say, 'now why do you think the bees are doing this? Why are we doing that?' "

She worked out ways for other classes to use it and entered and won various regional gardening competitions. "It all kept falling into place. I felt could have run the whole year from the garden."

Instead, she saw the RHS job advertised and thought, "if you don't try, you'll never know," and ended up with the kind of job every green-fingered teacher dreams of.

However, such straightforward progression has not been the normal pattern of her life. After training as a teacher, she went to France for a few weeks to pick grapes, met and married her French husband and stayed eight years doing various jobs, including teaching English to adults.

Back in England, her husband helped her father in his printing business while she started primary teaching. She took time out to have her children - a girl, now nine, and a boy, now six - then went back and supported her husband while he trained as a teacher.

She has always packed her life full of outside interests, such as growing her own food and cooking it and organising an organic vegetable box scheme.

"She's always been very green," says Shirley Barrell, a former colleague. "And she's also a very spiritual being. I think she feels she has a moral responsibility to nurture things. And it's quite an unusual family.

"The children will come into school and talk about all the interesting things they've been doing at the weekend, while everyone else has been stuck in front of the video."

At the society, Cauley wants things done in a way that makes best sense for schools. "We're not looking to develop horticulturalists at age eight, nine or 10."

What she wants is for children "to dig holes, plant things, take cuttings, see the natural world for what it is".

She knows the excitement children get from "pulling on their wellies and getting mud under their fingernails" and how much more they enjoy that than an expensive day out at a theme park.

She knows that children learn best by actually doing and that a garden can do wonders for holding the attention and loyalty of the more difficult children in a class.

She also knows the very real problem of 30 muddy children tramping back into school and the difficulty of trying to add yet more things to an already-burdened timetable.

What she hopes to do is help more schools make more of their gardens and to take training out to schools ("so people aren't frightened and overwhelmed because their garden doesn't look like this!")

What she won't be doing is

promoting the kind of "instant" gardening so beloved of current television programmes, "which is all decking and mirrors, and no-one's telling them that in two years' time half those plants will be way too big and need a heck of a lot of pruning".

Meanwhile, she is living in a friend's house, trying to organise the family's move to Surrey. And has no garden to call her own. "Which is terrible."

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