Gardeners' world

British schools are ploughing a new furrow by planting vegetables in tandem with pupils in developing countries. The idea is to teach children about global issues. Sue Royal reports
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The low-lying, lush pasture of the Somerset levels around Hugh Sexey Middle School in Wedmore looks windswept and chilly, even with the spring sun struggling through the clouds. It isn't an ideal day for planting, but the 10- and 11-year-olds are undaunted, greeting their gardening mentor Ruth Allen, from Somerset Food Links, with loud enthusiasm.

The low-lying, lush pasture of the Somerset levels around Hugh Sexey Middle School in Wedmore looks windswept and chilly, even with the spring sun struggling through the clouds. It isn't an ideal day for planting, but the 10- and 11-year-olds are undaunted, greeting their gardening mentor Ruth Allen, from Somerset Food Links, with loud enthusiasm.

Everyone crowds into a stone courtyard where a small modern greenhouse, two tractor tyres planted up with soil and a large raised bed are waiting for them. They are to plant lettuce seeds, herbs, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, beans, sugar snap peas, and alpine strawberries - good country food for hungry mouths. Ruth sets them to work digging over the raised bed, easing out the potted herbs ready for planting in one tractor tyre and making holes with a trowel in the other for the potatoes.

This may sound like a children's version of Gardeners' World or Ground Force, and it has some similarities to those programmes, but its scope is altogether more ambitious. It is, in fact, the first scheme of its kind, designed to educate children about sustainable agriculture, and how people live in other parts of the globe. Until now, British children have been pretty parochial in their world view; the aim is to change that.

"In the past, development education was less well supported," says Helen Young, schools programme manager of the Development Education Association. "It depended on an enthusiastic teacher or teachers. Now, citizenship education has made teachers take the intiative."

The two schools taking the initiative in Somerset are Hugh Sexey's and Whitehall primary school in St George, Bristol. They are part of the Global Gardens pilot project, linking seven Somerset schools with schools in the developing world. While learning about local and global food, as well as children's rights, pupils from the different countries will exchange e-mails, photos and letters. It is one of a number of food-related projects run by the Development Education Association, an organisation raising awareness of global issues.

At the same time as growing vegetables for an English diet, the two schools will grow the ingredients for fruit salad, apple cake, country garden soup, Caribbean tropical fruit salad, callaloo soup and ginger cake. The really exciting bit is that they have been paired with schools in the Caribbean island of Tobago, specifically with Scarborough Seventh Day Adventist primary, in the capital, and Belle Gardens Anglican school.

Traditionally, all schools on Tobago have gardens. Scarborough grows pigeon peas, cassava, dasheen (a root crop), lettuce, pachoi, and herbs. Belle Gardens, which is more rural, grows peppers, pineapple, plantain, banana, pachoi, lettuce, dasheen and tannia (another root crop), as well as herbs including thyme, broad and fine leaf basil, celery and chives.

Back at Hugh Sexey's, even though the British weather limits what they can grow, the children are keen to get stuck in. "Just a little bit like that," says Ruth, pouring lettuce seeds into her palm. "Then you tap your hand - this is magic, look. The seeds come out one at a time, not all together."

The three girls in the greenhouse dutifully follow suit, while Ruth teaches the group outside the qualities of herbs. "Thyme is eaten in Tobago, along with a dish using celery leaf and very hot chillies. Marjoram is a native British plant - it grows wild round here, and they use it in Tobago, too."

It is not until they reach "pollination" that anyone struggles. Ruth hands out sugar snap peas and asks where they came from. Suggestions range from "out of the ground" to "from the leaves" and "from the stem".

Eventually someone says: "From the flower." Ruth pounces with enthusiasm. By the end of the lesson, the pupils may be chilly but they know a lot more about the lives of plants.

The relationship between the two schools came about a year ago through Hugh Sexey's beacon-school status. Working with a multicultural school was one of the criteria, and Whitehall became that school: "Because we are an urban school with an array of cultures, it is a good forum for the children to talk about their own cultural experience," says the literacy leader and Year 6 teacher Charlotte Mills. "Some of the children are from the Caribbean, so they can share their ideas with the children who do not have that background."

Children from Whitehall have gained an insight into a rural experience through visiting Hugh Sexey's. "Some of the children do not have gardens, certainly not in the way that the children at Hugh Sexey's do," says Mills. "They have yards. So we have talked about growing things in pots and making the most of what you do have."

In one of a number of similarities and differences the project has thrown up, Tobago and Somerset also hold their own annual carnivals. Surprisingly, it's Hugh Sexey's that has the steel band. It will be providing the music for the Caribbean café the school will be running after the harvest, in the summer.

In another project, called Food for Thought, five Devon primary schools and one from Dorset have established links with Ugandan schools in two districts, to enable them to run farms. They became involved in 2000. "The effect of this has been absolutely fantastic - beyond anyone's expectations in terms of things like improving the Ugandan children's diet," says Sue Errington, the co-ordinator.

Ugandan teachers are trained in sustainable agriculture, but each school now has an agriculture teacher. In addition, £17 a month is sent to each school to buy whatever they need - tools, fencing to keep animals out, or even fruit trees.

The Devon schools are establishing organic gardens run on a garden-club basis and are growing food, as well as cooking and eating it. For World Food Day, they prepared Ugandan staples, such as green banana cooked in banana leaf, and bean stew. Pupils in Uganda, meanwhile, get to experience a UK food - shortbread.

The above projects are teaching pupils about food production around the world. But there is also a Government programme that enlisted schools from all over the country into running food-related projects as part of the National Healthy School Standard, which aims to reduce health inequalities.

At Crispin school in Street, Somerset, the Grow It, Cook It, Eat it project has been running for five years. A selection of vegetables are raised in the school's greenhouse by Year 10 children. Once a year, the pupils hold a taster day and prepare dishes such as parsnip crisps, potato salad and carrot dips.

In Norfolk, the schools run fruit tuck shops and market stalls to encourage healthier snacking, and in Cheshire seven schools run cookery clubs or are in the process of setting them up.

Funding comes from various sources, but some, like the Devon project, survive with none. Unicef, the EU and the Department for International Development have all provided money for Global Gardens. "Global citizenship starts with children understanding children's rights," says Pam Marchant, the Unicef worker who conceived Global Gardens. "We want to produce young people who are empowered to work for a fairer and more sustainable world."

Studying food is part of that. "One of the rights of the child is nutritious food and clean water," Marchant says. Meanwhile, back at Hugh Sexey's, the bell has gone. Three boys from the planting class return to the courtyard, giving up some of their lunch to look over the garden again.