. there's a fun way to boost the skills of special needs students
I have to be honest and admit that although I always wanted to be a school leader, I also really wanted to be a farmer. I can promise, however, that this unfulfilled passion for agriculture had no bearing on the decision of Mowbray School, where I am headteacher, to open its own farm.
The North Yorkshire school educates three- to 16-year-olds who have autism; moderate and severe learning difficulties; behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; speech, language and communication difficulties; and many other special educational needs (SEN). We set up a farm to offer the students an alternative type of education, and since its establishment five years ago it has grown to five and a half acres and is now home to a wide range of livestock and crops. Through it we deliver lessons as well as qualifications in farming-related skills.
What you notice when observing the children working on the farm is their calmness, interest, active participation and, most of all, enjoyment. Farm activities provide them with relief from formal lessons, allow them to shine, and give them the opportunity to develop their communication skills, thinking skills and ability to work with others.
Then there are the sensory benefits. When the children collect eggs from our 100 hens, they are always amazed by the variety. These eggs are not like the ones you buy in supermarkets: some are blue, some are huge and crinkled, others are small and perfectly formed. And it is difficult to describe how warm and soft eggs are when first laid.
The farm has to pay for itself, so our produce - vegetables and meat - is sold locally. We have built this process into the school enterprise curriculum, which contributed towards Mowbray being awarded the National Standard for Enterprise Education two years ago. What better way to develop numeracy and literacy than through the skills needed to market and sell produce?
Our farming activities are not just confined to the school. Some students have successfully trained to handle our rare-breed sheep and show them at agricultural fairs. In 2012 we won two categories at the Masham Sheep Fair, and this year we entered the North Yorkshire County Show. But the highlight came this summer, when three of our students won Young Handler prizes at the Great Yorkshire Show, the largest and most prestigious agricultural event in England.
It has not always been an easy task to manage the farm: my duties include checking pens for escaped animals as well as patrolling hallways for misbehaving students. However, the benefits are enormous. Of course, it helps that I am fulfilling a long-held passion, so I am happy to work the extra hours.
It was crucial that the project was built on a basis of belief and a will to succeed. It has developed into a farm that is integrated into the curriculum and fully supported by the whole school and our local community. As far as we know, we are the only SEN school offering a farm experience of this size and scope. We would wholeheartedly recommend the approach.
Jonathan Tearle is headteacher of Mowbray School in North Yorkshire, England
Top 10 resources for SEN students
1. Word up
Support students who have writing difficulties with this double-sided mat featuring common words listed in alphabetical order.
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