Case study: Bring the countryside to the heart of the curriculum

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Farm hands: Sacred Heart pupils during a farm visit as part of the Food and Farming project

The Food and Farming project at Sacred Heart RC Primary School engages pupils across all year groups with growing foods, cooking dishes, visiting farms and more. Emma Lee-Potter reports

Children at Sacred Heart RC Primary School always look forward to Friday afternoons. Not because it is the end of the school week, but because the whole afternoon is devoted to the school’s innovative Food and Farming project.

All 300 pupils at the primary school in Gorton, four miles from Manchester’s city centre, take part in the programme. One week they might be planting carrot seeds or sowing runner beans in the Parish Gardens, a communal garden a short walk from the school. Another week they might be using the food they have grown to make nourishing soups and stews.

The project started in 2014, when this inner-city school in a disadvantaged area miles away from the countryside decided to put food and farming at the heart of its curriculum. At the start the programme only involved the year 4 children but it proved so successful that the school opened it up to every year group.

Working with the Country Trust, a national education charity dedicated to bringing the working countryside alive for disadvantaged children, the Sacred Heart teachers explain where food comes from and enable the children to plant, grow and cook their own food. Along the way the youngsters learn skills that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives, such as how to cut vegetables correctly, health and safety, food hygiene, healthy eating, and costing and budgeting.

Once a year every class in the school gets the chance to visit a farm in Cheshire. Up until the launch of the Food and Farming project many of the children had never spent time in the countryside, let alone seen a working farm, and they were fascinated by the experience.

“The majority don’t have any knowledge of farms and the visits widen their eyes to what’s around them,” explained

Charlotte Robinson, the year 1 teacher who leads the Food and Farming project and who is also the school’s science coordinator.

“Seeing fields for the first time amazed them and they were surprised by all the farm smells. Lots of them got off the coach holding their noses because they had never smelled anything like it before.

“Some of the children spotted a bull and were astonished at its size. They didn’t know what kind of animal it was. They asked things like: ‘Is it a big cow? Why has it got a hoop in its nose?’

“They’ve seen a lamb being born and we’ve also been into a milking parlour to see cows being milked. We tried some milk as well and the children were disgusted by it because it was warm.”

Headteacher Suzanne Walker is keen to give the children as many opportunities as possible. Fifty-four per cent of the pupils are on free school meals and 46 per cent are entitled to Pupil Premium funding.

“Unemployment is quite high here and it’s a diverse area,” said Ms Walker, who has been head at Sacred Heart for 11 years. “We are in the top quartile of the most socially deprived schools in the country. Our children who are disadvantaged tend to make very good progress and that’s because of the nurturing environment we have built up within the school. The children are wonderful and the behaviour is very, very good.

“We support a lot of vulnerable children and families and we have a range of additional support that perhaps you wouldn’t have in a school that doesn’t have our types of needs. We have a social worker within the school, speech and language therapists and teaching assistants who deliver pastoral interventions as well as interventions to accelerate progress.”

The Country Trust ran the school’s Food and Farming programme for the first three years but the charity has now trained and supported the Sacred Heart staff to deliver it themselves.

Ms Robinson plans the Food and Farming project a year ahead and each class teacher plans six weeks of lessons at a time.

“We’ve had a lot of support from the Country Trust but for the past year Charlotte has taken the lead,” Ms Walker continued. “Charlotte has used the skills she has learned from the Country Trust and has made sure that all the teachers and teaching assistants are trained in delivering the project. It has saved a lot of money because we don’t need so much input. Vicki Leng from the Country Trust is very passionate about food and farming and has helped us to craft the project. She visits a couple of times a year to give us advice.”

Another key to the Food and Farming programme’s success is that it is embedded throughout the curriculum – in everything from science and maths to history and design and technology.

Ms Robinson, for instance, read a book called The Enormous Turnip with her year 1 pupils. She followed this up by taking the class to the Parish Gardens to plant their own turnip seeds.

“They were really excited by it,” she said. “They hoped that they were going to grow an enormous turnip themselves. They planted the seeds in March, harvested the turnips in July and then took them home. The turnips weren’t massive but we got some very good ones.

“It definitely helps their writing because they actually planted turnips and they can use adjectives from their real experience. In our cooking and tasting sessions we actively encourage children to explore language and adjectives using the things that they’re handling, such as ‘the heavy, prickly, spiky pineapple’.”

The teachers have also linked the Food and Farming project with a financial education project they run. The children learn about seasonal produce, working out the time of year when different foods are available and when they can get the best value for money. Once a year they run their own farmers’ market in the school playground. They sell the produce that they have grown and learn about profit and loss in the process.

On Friday afternoons the pupils jump at the chance to cook, tackling everything from turnip soup and ratatouille to vegetable lasagne and pasta salad.

“The children get very excited on Fridays because there’s often a smell of vegetable soup or lasagne wafting through the school,” said Ms Walker. “Ratatouille was a complete unknown to our children and lots of the parents. At the end of the session they take home the food they have cooked in a little brown bag so their families get to taste what they’ve made as well.”

The head is hugely proud of the impact the project has had on the pupils and their families. During one session parents and carers were invited into the school to observe and take part in the cooking themselves. “They’ve learned from this project as well,” said Ms Walker.

“Every child at Sacred Heart is heavily involved,” she added. “When they leave I want them to be able to grow some vegetables, make healthy food and also have an understanding and respect for where food comes from – and that’s what has happened. We’ve achieved what we set out to achieve. Now we want to keep building on what we’re doing and give them opportunities to visit a wider range of farms.

“All our children make either expected progress or good progress in the core subjects and part of the reason for that is the enrichment of the curriculum. Their writing and reading are often focused around food and farming and it helps to develop the children’s love of learning. The project has made a real difference.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

For more information about the work of The Country Trust, go to www.countrytrust.org.uk


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