My left-field lesson - Where there's muck..

11th October 2013 at 01:00
. 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.


2. Get cooking

Put your students on the road to becoming the next Jamie Oliver or Heston Blumenthal (left) with these recipes, which feature symbols as well as the usual instructions and lists of ingredients.


3. Scene changer

This video highlights ways in which you can make your classroom a more productive place for dyslexic students.


4. Able assistance

If you teach students who speak English as an additional language, this resource offers 50 ways of making your job easier and improving their learning.


5. Light behaviour

Get on the road to good behaviour with this traffic-light poster that tells students how to exercise self-control before a situation escalates.


6. Essential skills

Use this resource to help children who have severe learning difficulties to develop their fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination and pencil control.


7. Rhyme time

Give your students a rhyme or two, and see what poetry has the power to do. For students who struggle in class, this video may provide a solution that lasts.


8. Feedback issues

Ensure that your feedback to children struggling with literacy is constructive, using this highly effective resource.


9. Inclusive teaching

This resource aims to give you an insight into inclusive teaching, so you can ensure that all your students feel the benefit of your knowledge and attention.


10. Pay attention

Learn about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the best strategies to assist students who suffer from it with this handy booklet.



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