They're outstanding in their field

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Planting an orchard is an ideal way to branch out into Well-being Week

The children working outside at St Vincent's Primary in Glasgow seem undeterred by the grey skies and chilly morning. The worms are a different story. "Watch you don't cut that one with your spade," a girl cries.

"It's an invertebrate," another girl, with more science than healing knowledge, reassures the digger. "It'll grow back again."

Once a muddy corner at the edge of the new school, the outdoor space has been transformed by trelliswork, raised vegetable beds, wooden chairs and tables, an attractively rustic gazebo and a lot of care and attention.

"It was a.development opportunity," says principal teacher Brian Tracey, with a smile. "Now the children call it the Field of Dreams.

"Today we're working with an organisation called Fruitful Schools to get all our pupils out here in shifts and plant 40 fruit trees."

Former journalist John Hancox, director of Fruitful Schools, is a man on a mission - to populate every school in the country with fruit trees. But surely Scotland's climate doesn't lend itself to healthy orchards?

"Well, yes it does," he says, taking a break from directing children's operations, with a well-earned coffee in the gazebo. "You just have to choose the right varieties.

"There's a long tradition of fruit-growing in Scotland, in places like the Clyde Valley, the Carse of Gowrie, Stirling and East Lothian. There's a history of fruit-growing back to at least medieval times. When you look at old maps, you can see the orchards marked on them."

About 250 varieties of apple are currently grown in Scotland, he says. "We're sending a school orchard kit to Shetland this week. If you can grow fruit trees there, you can grow them anywhere in Scotland."

Fruitful Schools and Scottish Orchards are projects that have caught the imagination of everyone - from schoolchildren and teachers to parents and even politicians, Mr Hancox says. "We've been putting a collection of apple varieties together in autumn the past few years and taking them to the Scottish Parliament. We've now got cross-party support for what we're doing.

"You'd be hard-pressed to get politicians coming along if you were planting radishes, but there is something iconic about an orchard."

Even the names of the apple varieties that thrive in Scotland evoke a sense of place and history - Lass O' Gowrie, Clydeside, Tower of Glamis, Galloway Pippin, Stirling Castle, White Melrose, Arbroath Oslin, Bloody Ploughman, Beauty of Moray. "If you planted apples from Kent, they probably wouldn't do well here," says Mr Hancox. "But apples that have been growing for centuries in particular places are well adapted to local conditions."

This means that the little saplings going into the ground at St Vincent's - and other schools around the country - have a great chance of growing tall and fruitful, and contributing to children's understanding and pleasure in the natural world.

"I once passed a field of cows on a school visit and one boy told me he didn't like them," Mr Tracey says. "I said, `How can you not like cows - you like milk, don't you?' You know what he said? `What's milk got to do with cows?' He had absolutely no idea. A lot of children nowadays don't know where their food comes from. So a project like this is fantastic. They learn loads. It connects them with the natural world. And it gets them outside."

That in itself is a huge motivator for children's learning, he says. "Outdoor education is part of my remit. So we've been developing this space with the help of a grant from the Lottery and funding from Outdoor Learning. Glasgow's big on that and they've sent me on training to become an outdoor learning champion."

Outdoor links to the curriculum are obvious and everywhere, he says. "It ties in well with health and well-being. There's talking and listening and following instructions. There's measuring and numeracy. The kids love being out here. We do outdoor learning all round the school, in all weathers. We did a maths lesson on shape recently and had the kids in the playground drawing shapes with chalk, looking for shapes around the school and lying down and making them."

"It's fantastic. They don't realise they're learning, because they're running around and having a great time."

Over at the tree-planting, a group of P7s is getting a little help from Mr Hancox to plant a sweet cherry sapling. "Use the side of the hammer and try not to hit my fingers," he says, holding the stake lightly but with confidence in the children.

"We were supposed to dig a rectangle," Patrick explains. "But it didn't work out like that. Our hole is egg-shaped. But I think it will be fine."

The big problem is the stones just under the surface, says Ryan. "You keep hitting them with the spade. Then you have to stop digging and get them out."

The original plan was to put 40 young trees into the ground here, Chloe says. "But we're going to put in an extra two. We interviewed our headteacher, who's retiring, and she told us she really likes cherries. So we're planting two cherry trees just for her. It's a surprise."

Many of the pupils won't have such a nice garden at home, says Sharon Doyle, whose P54 pupils are part of the second shift of tree-planters today. "People are so busy, they don't do gardening now like they used to. So it's a great chance for children to get out here and get their hands dirty. I never got anything like planting trees when I was at school.

"Even if they don't realise it, there's loads of learning going on - teamwork, maths, listening and talking. All they think is they're having a great time. They'll all remember the day they planted fruit trees long after they've left school and forgotten lots of other learning. They'll drive past and go. `I planted that tree.'"

That shared sense of ownership is where the aims of education and of Mr Hancox's enterprise converge closely. "This is an area of deprivation and we're quite exposed here," says Mr Tracey. "But we've had no vandalism in our garden since we began. The children and their parents watch over it, because they feel it's theirs."

An orchard has a special effect on a community, Mr Hancox believes: "You get out there and work together to improve the environment for everyone. We are a social enterprise with school and community strands. They often mesh nicely and bring schools and local people together in shared aims and activities.

"About 20 years ago, I wrote a diary piece for a national newspaper on why there were no fruit trees in Scotland's parks. I'd been nagging the parks department for a while and I finally got an answer. They told me the reason was that people would eat the fruit."

It made a humorous story, he says. "But my pointing out how daft it was didn't change anything. That's a weakness of journalism, I guess. I realised that if I wanted to make a real difference, I had to get out there and encourage people to dig holes and plant trees."

Fruitful Schools supplies orchard packs, training and support to schools:


Teaching is more stressful than it used to be, says Anne Young, who has taught at St Vincent's Primary for more than 37 years, the last 15 as headteacher. But there are compensations. "The Field of Dreams has brought us lots of joy," she says.

"Everyone has played a part, including the nursery. In summer you can sit out there and the children come and talk to you and sit on the bench beside you. It's lovely. Our classes use it for outdoor learning, but it's more than a learning space. It's social too."

It's still early days for the field, she says, which began as unused space in a new school build. "We've managed to get funding to buy wee waterproof trousers and tops in three different sizes for the children and high- visibility jackets for the teachers. So we're all set, whatever the weather.

"My dream would be a tall oak tree in the middle of the garden, with seats all around for children and teachers. But I won't be here to see it. I'm retiring in nine days. I wanted to slip quietly out the back door, but they're not going to let me. They're having a mass up at St Vincent's Church for the whole school."

She smiles. "I've had lots of happy days here and I would rather walk out than get carried out."


Fruitful Schools was set up with support from the Scottish government in 2010. About 80 school orchards in Scotland were planted in the 2010-11 planting season, rising to 120 the next season.

"We'll be getting out about 170 school orchard kits this season from Shetland to Dumfries and from Dervaig on Mull to Edinburgh," Mr Hancox says. "A lot of those go out in February and March, but schools can keep planting our orchard kits right through until late May."

Additional support has gone to community groups and local authorities to develop school orchards, he says: "By the end of this planting season, we'll have planted more than 500 school orchards across Scotland. That's about 4,000-5,000 trees.

"We would like all children in Scotland and all schools to get the chance to plant, maintain and harvest fruit. So we are about a fifth of the way there."

The benefits will last long after children leave school, Mr Hancox says. "Fruit trees should grow for 50 years. So, in years to come, the pupils planting trees now can come back with their children, even their grandchildren, and pick fruit from the trees they planted."

Photo: Pupils from St Bride's Primary take part in the apple harvest at Hill House in Helensburgh. Photo credit: John Hancox


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