Hurrah for veg: How primary children are learning to love their greens

Primary schools are becoming expert at tending vegetables, thanks to the RHS and Alan Titchmarsh, finds James Morrison

Monday morning rituals don't come much better. As their classmates are shepherded into assembly, a handful of pupils at Woodingdean Primary School are given leave to potter around the garden, dousing parched plants with water after one of the hottest weekends of the summer. In her blue dress and dainty shoes, Elizabeth Aloof, 10, resembles a latter-day Alice in Wonderland as she tips a watering can over roses and Bugs Bunny carrots in a courtyard groaning with vegetables. Nearby, Alfie Saunders, also 10, is tending some florid cabbage tops. He breaks off to check on the pots lining a window-sill in an adjacent classroom, where tomatoes and aubergines jostle for the sun's rays.

Blessed with generous grounds and sweeping views over the point where the Sussex Downs taper into Brighton, Woodingdean occupies a rare location. But what it shares with thousands of primaries, from rural Scotland to inner London, is a growing enthusiasm for including gardening in its timetable – and using outside spaces for lessons across the National Curriculum.

This renaissance in outdoor teaching has been fostered by the Campaign for School Gardening, launched by the Royal Horticultural Society two years ago this September. In recent months, the scheme has secured sponsorship from Waitrose, a media partnership with The Independent on Sunday, and the support of television gardener Alan Titchmarsh, who this spring pledged 100 annual grants of £500 to schools that move beyond seed-sowing and fruit-picking to integrate horticulture into learning. The RHS's original ambition was to reach 18,000 of Britain's 23,000 primaries by 2012, but it has already enlisted 9,000 and now expects to hit its target next year. Ruth Taylor, the RHS head of education, says: "It's our aim to get the Government to recognise that growing plants is as much a key skill as cooking."

The society concedes the unprecedented uptake of its scheme has been encouraged by recent changes to the primary school curriculum, which have seen the creative learning principles underpinning early-years foundation-stage extended to older age groups. New nutritional standards for primary school lunches, following Jamie Oliver's campaign, have also focused minds.

Despite this, a survey of 500 primaries carried out by the RHS in 2007 indicated an alarming under-use of school gardens: of the 300 that had them, nearly half admitted using theirs less than once a month.

Today the picture is very different. Taylor says: "Initially schools used their gardens for science and promoting healthy eating, but now they're more creative, using them for everything from storytelling to yoga." There's no shortage of creativity at Woodingdean. As Alfie and Elizabeth wander through a trail of flowerbeds designed by a local landscape gardener, they meet a group of reception children arranging chunks of tree bark into images of giants. Surveying the spectacle from an "outdoor classroom" of log stools are Lauren Johnson, a Year One teacher and personal social and health education (PSHE) co-ordinator, and Mark Griffiths, who teaches Year Five and doubles as expert on all things green. "Teachers inspired by the outdoors can make loads of links to the curriculum, says Johnson. "I took mine out to do observational drawings last week."

Every inch the gardener, with his windswept hair and mud-spattered shorts, Griffiths has even been known to find uses for courgettes in maths. "Rather than sitting in a classroom, you can look at a raised bed and say, 'A courgette plant needs this much space to grow: let's measure the area'."

Educational outcomes can be found throughout the school: reception class walls are festooned with vegetable-print paintings and leaves and twigs pupils collected on a recent Explorer's Day. On a table lies a portfolio chronicling the garden's transformation, from bulldozer to harvest. But what do the pupils make of the moves to replace electronic whiteboards and computers with the materials of nature?

"I like getting dirty in all the mud!" grins an immaculate Elizabeth, adding that attending Tuesday night's allotment club has inspired her to convert her family to the joys of horticulture. "I dug up my patio to make vegetable patches. We always did a bit of gardening but now we've got purple-spiked broccoli and a cherry tree coming through the decking."

Alfie, loud red sunglasses slung around his neck, says what he most enjoys about gardening (besides "digging things up") is tasting the fruits of his labours. At school, produce is distributed in one of two ways: at end-of-term Big Pulls, when allotment club members take home their share of the harvest, and weekly lottery-style draws. "I won a pepper on Friday!" Alfie announces.

Not all schools are as equipped for gardening as Woodingdean. Set in a rolling landscape of fields and allotments, it serves a relatively well-heeled catchment area. Whenever Griffiths needs £100 for seeds or trowels he can rely on the parents, teachers and friends association to raise it ("they sold ice-creams in the playground on Friday").

But what has the campaign done for poorer communities? Pirton Hill Primary School in Luton draws three-quarters of its 530 pupils from Hockwell Ring, a multi-ethnic district which is one of the 20 per cent most socially deprived areas in England and Wales. The deputy head, Emma Woollon, started a basic garden three years ago, before stumbling on the RHS scheme via its website. The school is now racing to qualify for a £500 Alan Titchmarsh Award so it can replace the ageing second-hand tools donated by staff.

Woollon says the process of nurturing their own crops has given some children their first insight into basic dietary issues. "Many of them eat junk food and have no understanding of where food comes from, apart from packets," she adds. "At our last Ofsted inspection, some pupils didn't know milk came from cows."

Gardening has also helped with behaviour. "One child used to walk out of class the whole time," adds Woollon. "He went out one day to lay compost with the gardener. He hasn't got an adult male role model in his life and he responded well."

The issues with which Pirton Hill is wrestling mirror concerns that moved Alan Titchmarsh and his wife, Alison, to set up their Titchmarsh Gardens for Schools Trust in 2002. "I get angry when people put gardening in a little box," says Titchmarsh. "Gardening is a good thing socially, spiritually, and physically. It ticks so many boxes in terms of educational development, and it's wonderfully benign."

Does he think governments should do more to promote school gardening? "I do. School is about the three Rs but also about preparing you for the world outside. Children are evangelical about being green, but often on the negative side – 'don't do this, don't do that'. What about things you can do?"

www.rhs.org.uk/school gardening

A fertile campaign

* The RHS Campaign for School Gardening began in September 2007 to promote the use of gardens to teach the National Curriculum

* Schools are given free seeds, teacher training and rewards for progressing through five stages – from setting up their gardens to sharing them locally

* Up to 100 Alan Titchmarsh Awards of £500 are given each year to the first schools to reach benchmark four

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape