Sowing new seeds in a Field of Hope

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
A school gardening project in East Kilbride is encouraging youngsters' life skills to bloom. Douglas Blane reports

Among all the skills the fifth-year class are acquiring at Duncanrig Secondary in East Kilbride, there is also a new insight into their English teacher.

"They see me being a bit hopeless at times," confesses Allan Wilkie. "They enjoy that. You're out there in the garden, working side by side, trying to do this new thing, and the quiet ones often open up and start chatting to you in a way you don't get in a classroom. I'm no expert, so we're learning together.

"I saw a programme a few years ago with Monty Don, who said if you get people interested in a garden, all sorts of things flourish in their lives. I've had it in the back of my mind ever since."

Now in its second year, the practical class that grew from that small seed now aims to provide valuable life skills to fifth-year pupils not taking certificate English.

"We want to give them a mix of employability and communication skills, writing, presenting, doing CVs," says Mr Wilkie.

Enterprise education initiatives, such as the Schools Enterprise Programme and Determined to Succeed, have shown that these skills are best learnt in situations in which pupils' actions affect the real world, not just the classroom.

"We are planting over 400 daffodils," young Dean Maxwell explains out in the garden, as he and his colleagues make as yet inexpert, but determined, efforts to turn the turf and plant the bulbs.

"It's a Marie Curie Field of Hope," he says. "We're going to raise money by getting people to sponsor a daffodil and write something in a memory book, a condolence book, if they've lost someone to cancer."

The idea came from Catherine Holmes, who teaches in the communications support base, which opens out onto the formerly bare space that is now fertile with fruit trees, sunflowers, raised beds, a large greenhouse and hundreds of bulbs waiting for spring.

"I used to be a Marie Curie nurse," she says. "This is the third school where I've got the children to create a Field of Hope.

"Allan and I have been working together, and so have his pupils and ours. We have three boys here who are quite severely autistic. They can help plant bulbs, but they can't make posters or do presentations or talk at assemblies. So we've combined."

Limited though the interaction is, both groups benefit, she says. "We had been out planting bulbs, then Allan's kids came down next period. Our boys had baked during the week, so they made tea and juice and carried it out to the garden with the cakes they'd made.

"I wasn't sure how Allan's class would react - whether they would eat them. But they were lovely with our kids. If nothing else came of it, those moments were special. It was heart-warming."

Both sets of youngsters are gaining new skills and attitudes, says Scott Clark, who teaches in the base. "Allan's class are learning a bit of social responsibility. They might meet people like ours in the real world and it shows they don't need to be worried about that. It's opening their eyes."

The objective is to give the fifth-years as varied a set of experiences as possible, says Mr Wilkie, during a year that will, for the majority, be their last in school. "We're getting them to do all this charity work, partly because it'll help them at interviews. But they do get really engaged.

"We organised a visit, for instance, by Anne Jarvie from Marie Curie Cancer Care, and my pupils were asking questions that showed they were genuinely interested - who'd be in the hospice, how long they'd be there, why she was doing that kind of work."

Earlier contacts in school with these same students wouldn't always have been so productive, he says. "Attitudes and behaviour might have been more immature. This is an introduction to the adult world for them. You're treating them in a more adult way and they respond. They appreciate it.

"Their attitude and the atmosphere in the class are quite different to what they could have been. They are dealing with things very maturely."

Back out in the garden, time was running out for the turf-turners and bulb-planters. But they were getting there. Katie Stevens paused from her efforts with a large garden fork to explain what they'd been doing. "We all wrote letters and sent them away to places like Morrisons and BQ - loads of places."

"We said who we were and what we were doing and would they like to kindly donate something like bulbs. I'd never done anything like that. Most of them replied."

It's not all about gaining new skills, she said. "You are also learning about yourself. I've discovered I can work in a group. I didn't know that. I also didn't know I could garden."

Dean wasn't aware he could write competent letters, he says. "Also standing up and speaking to people - I used to get embarrassed. But I've discovered there's no need to feel like that. We're doing PowerPoints, and we're going to get up and say what we're good at. Then we're going to speak at assemblies when we start on the fundraising.

A bell rang inside the school and Katie put down her fork. "Right then," she says decisively. "We've got the turf out. Let's shove these bulbs in."

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