Following calls for more food and farming education to be put on the curriculum, Abi Kay visits an inner-city school which is putting nutrition at the core of its learning.
At Sacred Heart Primary School, Gorton, South Manchester, learning about food is woven into every lesson, including science, maths, literacy and even history.
The groundbreaking curriculum was designed by the Country Trust charity, with the support of headteacher Suzanne Walker, a ‘quiet visionary’ who saw how much the children under her care could benefit from a deep knowledge of food.
The Country Trust, which only works with schools where a high proportion of the children are entitled to free school meals, originally approached Sacred Heart to offer a two-year, fully funded Food Discovery programme aimed at Year 4 pupils aged eight and nine.
Ms Walker said: “When we realised the project was not going to cost us anything for the first year and we were going to get so much from it, it was not something we were going to turn down.”
Vicki Leng, Country Trust food discovery manager, was sent in to work with the school, passing on her knowledge to teachers and teaching assistants.
The project has now expanded to include all Sacred Heart’s pupils, with the school’s science coordinator, Charlotte Robinson, taking on the bulk of duties for its delivery.
Each year group spends half a term learning about cooking or gardening, with most lessons conducted in the neighbouring church’s parish gardens.
In the gardening section of the curriculum, the children grow tomatoes, courgettes, bean plants, herbs, chillies and potatoes.
After being harvested, the food is taken indoors to be cooked by the pupils in specially-built kitchens.
All other lessons at Sacred Heart take on the food and farming theme. A typical maths class, for example, could include discussions about yields.
Ms Leng said: “We might plant a potato and think about how many potatoes you can get.”
Children have also been encouraged to think about real world business skills.
“In our playground markets we get the children selling things, so they do market research, buy stuff in and work out how to make a profit,” Ms Leng added.
“They understand the need to cover costs. It is real money and children love it.”
As Gorton is a disadvantaged area, Sacred Heart puts an emphasis on personal finance, with a designated staff member responsible for teaching about budgeting.
Here again, food is at the forefront of the school’s thoughts.
Ms Walker said: “What I see in our lessons is real life skills being taught.
“The teachers bring in so many things. They teach the children when they can get good value for money and buy good crops, and give them recipes for healthy eating.”
The Country Trust was established in 1970 by businessman and organic farmer Lance Coates to promote sustainable, organic farming and champion human health.
Today, it continues with these aims, targeting primary schools which have an above average percentage of children eligible for free school meals or pupil referral units, which accommodate troubled and disruptive children. It also works with pupils who have special educational needs and disabilities
Achievements last year:
For more information about the Country Trust, please visit their website: www.countrytrust.org.uk
As part of the curriculum, all pupils visit a farm at least once a year.
Ms Robinson said: “We saw a lamb being born on our last visit with children aged five and six.
“There was a stunned silence. Nobody said a word, they were just watching it happen, amazed.
“The children experience country life on the visits too. Many have never experienced something as simple as the smell of a farm.”
Ms Leng agreed, pointing out how the pupils often do not even have any garden space at home.
“If you are lucky, the house might be two feet back from the pavement, but most of them will only have a small flagged backyard, so the chance to get their hands dirty is just not there,” she said.
“When they can do that, it is another world. It sounds almost fantastical, but it is true. Often children will get told off for getting dirty, so to be able to do it and it be classed as learning is quite a deep thing for them.”
For boys growing up in Manchester, where child deprivation is linked to unemployment and out-of-work poverty is higher than in-work poverty, seeing men employed on-farm can be an eye-opening experience.
“In areas where we work it is unusual for children to know a man in employment,” Ms Leng said.
“To see someone who is passionate about their job and to talk to them is quite special. And for children who are not great at learning while at a desk, farm visits show them a whole swathe of job opportunities.
“It is inspiring for them to see there are jobs out there you can be passionate about but which do not mean you have to sit at a desk.”
Everyone at Sacred Heart is convinced the programme has improved the lives of the pupils in innumerable ways.
“I am confident this project is amazing in terms of raising children’s confidence, improving their self-esteem and giving them further motivation for learning,” Ms Leng said.
“It contextualises the curriculum for them as it is so hands-on. This is not desk learning like opening a textbook and looking at parts of a plant on a piece of paper.
“When you can touch the plant you have grown from a seed and you see its roots coming down and the leaves forming, it is a very different thing.”
It is not only the children who are benefiting from the Country Trust’s approach to teaching.
In Accrington, Lancashire, another area where the charity works with schools, some children struggled to sell fresh vegetables at a playground market as parents did not know what to do with them.
It is hoped this will begin to change as the children take their knowledge home.
Ms Robinson said: “I think what the children do here goes home with them as they always take an interest in things.
“Just the other day we sent carrots home. They were all saying ‘look at this, look at what I have grown’.”
Parents are also encouraged to get involved with making soup or pasta salads at the school, and children will sometimes take home a meal they have prepared in class.
At Sacred Heart, enough of the teaching staff now have the knowledge for the project to be self-sustaining.
The culture change has been so well-embedded many of the teachers are now growing their own food – a change they insist is down to the food and farming programme.
But what about other schools? Funding is required to kick-start the programme as experts would be needed to train teaching staff, and the Government has not put any cash into this kind of project.
Ms Walker said: “It would be good to think every child could have access to these kinds of resources.
“We should not take food for granted. We want all of our children to have a real understanding and respect for where food comes from and for those who grow it.
“I think this is what is happening here now.”