Hurrah for veg: How primary children are learning to love their greens

Blessed with generous grounds and sweeping views over the point where the
Sussex Downs taper into Brighton, Woodingdean occupies a rare location. But
what it shares with thousands of primaries, from rural Scotland to inner
London, is a growing enthusiasm for including gardening in its timetable ?
and using outside spaces for lessons across the National Curriculum.

This renaissance in outdoor teaching has been fostered by the Campaign for
School Gardening, launched by the Royal Horticultural Society two years ago
this September. In recent months, the scheme has secured sponsorship from
Waitrose, a media partnership with The Independent on Sunday, and the
support of television gardener Alan Titchmarsh, who this spring pledged 100
annual grants of £500 to schools that move beyond seed-sowing and
fruit-picking to integrate horticulture into learning. The RHS’s original
ambition was to reach 18,000 of Britain’s 23,000 primaries by 2012, but it
has already enlisted 9,000 and now expects to hit its target next year. Ruth
Taylor, the RHS head of education, says: “It’s our aim to get the
Government to recognise that growing plants is as much a key skill as
cooking.”

The society concedes the unprecedented uptake of its scheme has been
encouraged by recent changes to the primary school curriculum, which have
seen the creative learning principles underpinning early-years
foundation-stage extended to older age groups. New nutritional standards for
primary school lunches, following Jamie Oliver’s campaign, have also focused
minds.

Despite this, a survey of 500 primaries carried out by the RHS in 2007
indicated an alarming under-use of school gardens: of the 300 that had them,
nearly half admitted using theirs less than once a month.

Today the picture is very different. Taylor says: “Initially schools used
their gardens for science and promoting healthy eating, but now they’re more
creative, using them for everything from storytelling to yoga.” There’s
no shortage of creativity at Woodingdean. As Alfie and Elizabeth wander
through a trail of flowerbeds designed by a local landscape gardener, they
meet a group of reception children arranging chunks of tree bark into images
of giants. Surveying the spectacle from an “outdoor classroom” of
log stools are Lauren Johnson, a Year One teacher and personal social and
health education (PSHE) co-ordinator, and Mark Griffiths, who teaches Year
Five and doubles as expert on all things green. “Teachers inspired by
the outdoors can make loads of links to the curriculum, says Johnson. “I
took mine out to do observational drawings last week.”

Every inch the gardener, with his windswept hair and mud-spattered shorts,
Griffiths has even been known to find uses for courgettes in maths. “Rather
than sitting in a classroom, you can look at a raised bed and say, ‘A
courgette plant needs this much space to grow: let’s measure the area’.”

Educational outcomes can be found throughout the school: reception class walls
are festooned with vegetable-print paintings and leaves and twigs pupils
collected on a recent Explorer’s Day. On a table lies a portfolio
chronicling the garden’s transformation, from bulldozer to harvest. But what
do the pupils make of the moves to replace electronic whiteboards and
computers with the materials of nature?

“I like getting dirty in all the mud!” grins an immaculate
Elizabeth, adding that attending Tuesday night’s allotment club has inspired
her to convert her family to the joys of horticulture. “I dug up my
patio to make vegetable patches. We always did a bit of gardening but now
we’ve got purple-spiked broccoli and a cherry tree coming through the
decking.”

Alfie, loud red sunglasses slung around his neck, says what he most enjoys
about gardening (besides “digging things up”) is tasting the
fruits of his labours. At school, produce is distributed in one of two ways:
at end-of-term Big Pulls, when allotment club members take home their share
of the harvest, and weekly lottery-style draws. “I won a pepper on
Friday!” Alfie announces.

Not all schools are as equipped for gardening as Woodingdean. Set in a rolling
landscape of fields and allotments, it serves a relatively well-heeled
catchment area. Whenever Griffiths needs £100 for seeds or trowels he can
rely on the parents, teachers and friends association to raise it (“they
sold ice-creams in the playground on Friday”).

But what has the campaign done for poorer communities? Pirton Hill Primary
School in Luton draws three-quarters of its 530 pupils from Hockwell Ring, a
multi-ethnic district which is one of the 20 per cent most socially deprived
areas in England and Wales. The deputy head, Emma Woollon, started a basic
garden three years ago, before stumbling on the RHS scheme via its website.
The school is now racing to qualify for a £500 Alan Titchmarsh Award so it
can replace the ageing second-hand tools donated by staff.

Woollon says the process of nurturing their own crops has given some children
their first insight into basic dietary issues. “Many of them eat junk
food and have no understanding of where food comes from, apart from packets,”
she adds. “At our last Ofsted inspection, some pupils didn’t know milk
came from cows.”

Gardening has also helped with behaviour. “One child used to walk out of
class the whole time,” adds Woollon. “He went out one day to lay
compost with the gardener. He hasn’t got an adult male role model in his
life and he responded well.”

The issues with which Pirton Hill is wrestling mirror concerns that moved Alan
Titchmarsh and his wife, Alison, to set up their Titchmarsh Gardens for
Schools Trust in 2002. “I get angry when people put gardening in a
little box,” says Titchmarsh. “Gardening is a good thing socially,
spiritually, and physically. It ticks so many boxes in terms of educational
development, and it’s wonderfully benign.”

Does he think governments should do more to promote school gardening? “I
do. School is about the three Rs but also about preparing you for the world
outside. Children are evangelical about being green, but often on the
negative side ? ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’. What about things you can do?”

www.rhs.org.uk/school
gardening

A fertile campaign

* The RHS Campaign for School Gardening began in September 2007 to promote the
use of gardens to teach the National Curriculum

* Schools are given free seeds, teacher training and rewards for progressing
through five stages ? from setting up their gardens to sharing them locally

* Up to 100 Alan Titchmarsh Awards of £500 are given each year to the first
schools to reach benchmark four

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