Wicor Primary School students are learning about environmental issues through growing their own vegetables.
At 69, Joe Bowen is, he admits, a little old to be turning up for school bright and early on a Monday morning. But he says his twice-weekly days at Wicor primary school in Hampshire, where he’s one of three volunteers looking after the school’s large and flourishing allotment, are a “total treat”.
An average day will see Bowen and his two colleagues digging, weeding, planting seeds, potting, and tidying – all before morning playtime, when they’ll be joined by enthusiastic children asking them questions and pitching in to help.
Bowen is part of a wider project at Wicor to bring environmental issues and food sustainability into the heart of the curriculum.
Headteacher Mark Wildman inherited a “playing field with a hedge round it” when he took up the post 20 years ago. “The field was a legacy of the 1980s. It was so boring,” he recalls. “So we dug it up. We’ve not really stopped since,” he laughs
Seven years ago, learning support assistant (LSA) Shirley Pattison asked if she could dig beds and grow vegetables. Although Wildman and his team had already started a programme of environmental teaching and activities, growing food was new. “I thought it was a great idea – it was the catalyst for everything which has followed. We just got on with it. The time was right for the school,” he says.
Now there are polytunnels, a large greenhouse, four allotments, an orchard, as well as green spaces to play and relax on the 0.3 acre site. It’s overseen by a dedicated teacher, who plans the growing, manages the volunteers and, along with another colleague, fits the environment and food projects into the curriculum. As well as teaching her own specific lessons, she also helps year 6 with their veg box scheme and makes sure the rota for looking after the eight hens – one for each year group and one for the teachers – is followed.
Most of what Wicor pupils do in the garden falls within its science curriculum. “It makes for a richer and deeper experience all round,” says Wildman. “They learn about propagation, doing it with real plants that they’ve grown from seed. In the ‘olden’ days, we’d use broad beans on blotting paper in a jam jar and watch them sprout, but now we can plant them in different soil types to see the effect of different growing mediums. They make composts too, so they can see what makes the best.” Children regularly sample the produce they’ve grown, resulting in more confident eaters keen to try new foods.
Their growing efforts have even extended to a veg box scheme, run entirely by year 6 pupils. “We got advice about presentation and what to put in the boxes, and the children manage it themselves, from taking the orders, harvesting the produce, delivering them to parents and taking money. It’s pretty impressive.” Wicor’s hens work hard too, producing enough eggs to sell at the school gate.
All the time, the children are making direct links to the physical world, says Wildman. “Growing, harvesting, caring for living things – it’s all linked and it’s all on the curriculum.”
Formal learning time aside, the children can go to the gardens at any time and “just potter”, because there’s a teacher on duty at all times. Wildman has seen a real link between behavioural issues and time spent outside. “If anyone’s having a wayward moment, half an hour digging, or chatting to the chickens, usually sorts them out,” he smiles.
Working outdoors encourages the kind of relaxed interaction you rarely find in the classroom. Getting the children out of a heated room and into natural light and air, is very good for them – and the teachers too.
Wicor is a remarkable example of how a small idea can take seed and spread. “We started small and have grown as we go along. Any school can do the same,” says Wildman.
He stresses that it’s worked for Wicor because food and conservation are treated as essential school legacies. “We’ve never seen it as a bolt-on extra – it’s part of us.” The school won WWF’s special Food and Growing prize at the 2014 Green Ambassadors Awards and is also part of the Royal Horticultural Society’s prestigious Open Garden event.
Awards aside, volunteer Bowen is clear about why he works, rain or shine, alongside pupils at this two-class per year intake school. “I worked in the naval base in Portsmouth for nearly 50 years. It was dark all the time – there was no sunlight. So, for me, this is heaven on earth, to be out in the fresh air. And even better, I’m helping the next generation of gardeners.”