Education: Art and maths in their own baa-aa-ck yard: A Kent school is reaping a rich harvest from running a farm. Julia Hagedorn paid a visit

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The Independent Online
WALK behind the Georgian mansion that gave Homewood School its name, through an archway by a dilapidated Victorian greenhouse, and the view opens out to fields, woods and ponds. The scene is dotted with the maroon jerseys of the school's pupils as they sit on the grass with sandwiches in one hand and rabbits or guinea-pigs in the other. Elsewhere their friends are leading haltered lambs, calves or even pigs.

Further down the path, near a building that used to be the mansion's apple store, more children are hard at work grooming sleek cows, cleaning out a sheep dip or hosing vegetables.

Two young owls are learning to perch on gloved hands. The lowing of cattle and fussy clucking of hens provide the background sound to an unexpected pastoral.

Homewood, in Tenterden, Kent, is a rural comprehensive that has the most successful Young Farmers' Club in the county. For the past three years it has won the most points in competitions throughout the year, including a win in calf haltering, a contest that pitted the pupils against those already working full-time on farms. Pupils have also won junior Stockperson of the Year and Young Farmer of the Year.

Yet they are not members of the green wellies and Barbour brigade. The pupils who help on the farm are as likely to come from suburban estates in nearby Ashford as to be the sons and daughters of rural farmworkers. The school, under Jacqueline Kearns, its new head, opted out of the local authority to keep a social and academic mix in a county that still has grammar schools.

While only about 10 per cent of the school's 1,200 pupils take an active part in the farm or the Young Farmers' Club that meets after school, many more gravitate towards the animals during the midday break. David Bryant, the stockman, is the kind of fatherly but blunt figure to whom children are drawn. He is happiest surrounded by young people, and puts as much care into tending the emotional needs of the pupils as he does the physical needs of his animals.

'This school has a high percentage of kids from one-parent families and the farm gives them something to hold and love. And there are disadvantaged and bullied children who come here as a safe haven. An hour can be a long time if you are being pushed around,' he says.

For this reason, he allows some 'loss leaders' - such as the pet rabbits - but is well aware, having come to the school in 1981 after a life in commercial farming, that the farm still has to be run as a going concern. He manages to slip in a few rare breeds 'on educational grounds' - such as the Gloucester Old Spot pig - and would love to replace his 'Heinz 57 varieties' of sheep with a flock of pure Kents, 'part of the children's heritage'.

Pupils do the choosing and bidding at market, having first been introduced to the auctioneer and the vet and told what points to look for. They also do all the work on the farm - in some cases arriving at 7.45am to open the sheds. They learn the importance of hygiene and of sterilising the animals' pens; they witness the sheep being sheared and, sometimes, the calves being born.

There is a lively anecdote going around about an attempt to inseminate one of the pigs. Nick Anderson, the head of agricultural science, 'gave her a bucket of food and hoped she would put her head in there and not notice, but she was all over the place and Mr Anderson after her with the syringe', Mr Bryant says.

But, as Mr Anderson points out, running the farm is not a joke. 'If we are to do it, we have to do it properly.' That includes looking after the 25 acres: last winter several hundred saplings were planted to make new hedges, a new pond was dug and the six-acre wood is regularly patrolled to check for trees in a dangerous condition.

The pupils who show animals have graduated from a rabbit or guinea-pig, through a sheep to a pig or calf. They are in charge of all the handling and grooming of their animals and have to be able to answer questions and present themselves and the animals in spotless condition.

Chris Bowley, 15, who is in charge of Ellie, a calf bred from a top Belgian blue bull, comes in every weekend. As the Kent Show approached, Ellie was groomed ever more intensely, her head and back shaved to improve her appearance. Chris was hoping that she would handle better than the last time he showed her: that time, she refused to walk around the ring because she was missing her mother.

Chris is hoping to be a vet and is taking three separate sciences at GCSE, and then A-levels. Steven Bullock is perhaps more typical of the kind of pupil attracted to the farm. He is in charge of a pig: 'Not many people like pigs but I do, so I got 'em.' Two years ago he was being bullied, and sought refuge among the animals on the farm.

Ellie's 17-month-old brother, a fine bullock called Winston, was ready to go to market. He will provide prime fat-free steak to the consumer, and the farm with about pounds 900. Chris Bowley has a year's grace with Ellie, but admitted that the one bad thing about the farm was when the animals had to go. 'You have to put it in perspective. That's life.'

The farm also plays a large part in the school's formal curriculum. Old potting sheds have been turned into a rural science laboratory and 80 out of 240 pupils are taking rural science as part of their dual GCSE science. Some will then take the national vocational qualification in agriculture, which links into a local college and provides a route into farming management.

The farm is also used for anatomy and physiology, for animal behaviour, for the section in the national curriculum on ecology and conservation, for an A-level biology module on poultry and cattle, for genetics, art and English classes, business studies, maths and even history.

Many school farms have seen their land sold off. Homewood survived a tricky patch in the mid-Eighties but is now safe. Mrs Kearns believes in the therapeutic aspect of the farm, as well as its role in teaching responsibility. There are fewer complaints from teachers about the pupils' time-keeping than about them being smelly. David Bryant says: 'If there is a life hereafter, I want to come back as an animal to Homewood. They are treated with care and dignity - and so they should be.'

(Photograph omitted)

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