An organic gardening scheme is providing fertile ground for budding environmentalists. Ann FitzGerald takes a turn round the compost heap
A project that can generate enthusiasm for learning, provide a wealth of teaching resources, act as good publicity for the school and even cut mainten-ance costs sounds pure fantasy. But schools taking part in the Go Organic in the School Grounds initiative are already finding some, or all, of these benefits.
The three-year project was set up in March 1996 by the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the United Kingdom's leading organisation for research into, and development of, organic horticulture. Funding from the Department of the Environment allowed the association to offer help and advice to 12 schools in England (primary, secondary and special schools) chosen for their varied circumstances.
The association's project co-ordinator, Maggie Brown, says: "Many schools have already increased their environmental awareness. But we are encouraging them to go a step further - to go organic."
Schools involved in the project have found that planting, composting, mulching and other "green" activities offer a wealth of learning resources. At Hunton Primary School in Kent, Ann Bishop reports that key stage 2 children are recording the range of temperatures in the school's compost heap, noting rates of decomposition and what happens to materials as they rot.
In one area, grass has been left to grow and is proving a rich source of fieldwork on plant recognition. Each Year 3 child has adopted a tree and is responsible for its care and recording growth and seasonal changes. Other classes have planted beds with vegetables, herbs and butterfly-attracting plants.
The heavy soil is difficult for these young children to work, so the association has suggested enriching and lightening it with leaf mulch.
An organic vegetable garden - hand weeded - is proving stimulating for children at Wainbody Special School, Coventry, which takes children with emotional and behavioural problems out of the city's mainstream primaries. At the instigation of science co-ordinator Carol Williams, an overgrown area of the grounds, thick with rough grass and weeds, was back-breakingly dug over ready for spring planting with seeds from Henry Doubleday.
Now boys from Year 4 proudly show the tiny shoots and leaves of potatoes, carrots, beans, peas and marrows they are tending - all marked by picture labels made in plant identification lessons. "Most valuable of all, the garden gives them respect for living things," says Ms Williams. "They used to trample indiscriminately over the soil, but now step carefully on boards between the rows."
For Golden Hillock Secondary School, Birmingham, "grounds" means Tarmac playgrounds, car parks and one grass sports pitch.
Science teacher John Legge explains: "We already have an ambitious plan for re-designing and 'greening' the site under way, but we can only afford to do it piecemeal."
This year, a corner of the playground between two wings of this red-brick, Victorian building has been made into a small garden of raised beds, planted, on the HDRA's advice, with ground-covering plants and small shrubs that need little maintenance. Flat seating on the walls offers some respite from the rough and tumble of the playground. What was "just a litter trap", is now a pleasant, quiet area. The quality of the soil in this densely urban area is poor - dusty and thin, so the next project is to begin composting.
George Ward School in Melksham, Wiltshire, is already well ahead with composting. John Kendall, the school's enthusiastic co-ordinator for environmental education, says: "We compost all our green rubbish and we're experimenting with hedge-trimmings as a 'bottom' to the hedges and shrubs. This should suppress weeds, attract invertebrates and avoid the use of herbicide sprays. Removing chemical use from areas where children sit, eat and play has been one of the most valuable aspects of our work with the HDRA.
"It has also increased the variety of plants and grasses for study," adds Mr Kendall. "Now, when we throw a quadrant on the grass we find a wealth of plants and small insects. It also makes sense, if at key stages 3 and 4 you are teaching the dangers of herbicides and pesticides, to encourage the children to consider other ways of achieving the same results."
But Mr Kendall is realistic about the time it takes to turn people's thinking around - particularly contractors. The HDRA's Maggie Brown echoes his point. She has found it "heartbreaking" to see how grounds are usually managed. "Competitive, compulsory tendering too often means the cheapest option, using workmen who don't know what they're doing, and wholesale spraying, which destroys the area's natural fertility," she says.
But the project has uncovered the desire of many teachers to find a greener way ahead.
The HDRA is holding a one-day conference to help interested teachers find cost-effective, organic methods of managing their grounds.Go Organic in the School Grounds is on October 22 in Coventry. For details of the conference, which will see the launch of the association's 'Go Organic' manual, contact Maggie Brown or Pauline Pears at: HDRA, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG. Tel:01203 308218303517