Digging for victory: Schools back gardens plan

Today, The IoS announces an ambitious initiative to encourage the nation's children to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Jane Merrick reports

Demi Darley is 10. She lives in one of the most deprived boroughs of the country, where life expectancy is far below the national average, and high rates of obesity and heart disease go hand in hand with unemployment and low aspiration. In her neighbourhood, a garden is a luxury.

Last Thursday, Demi scattered a handful of broad bean seeds into a patch of earth, taking care to water them properly. She and her classmates at Kingsway Primary School in Goole, east Yorkshire, are the beneficiaries of a simple yet extraordinary programme aimed at getting schoolchildren interested in growing fruit and vegetables that they can eat.

Today, The Independent on Sunday, working with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), launches a campaign to Let Children Grow. The campaign aims to get all primary schools in the UK to provide some form of practical gardening for pupils.

Amid the gloom of recession and unemployment, thousands of children across the country are learning for the first time about gardening, and with it the enjoyment of fresh air, appreciation of the environment, healthy eating and in turn the prospect of a longer life.

Introducing children to gardening at an early age helps them to understand where the food on their table comes from, and research by the RHS suggests it can help improve academic achievement, behaviour and confidence among pupils. It can contribute to the mental and physical health of children.

The RHS, the prestigious gardening charity behind the Chelsea Flower Show, has established its own Campaign for School Gardening, offering a support and educational network for schools across the country.

We are urging readers who teach at or have children who go to primary school to get involved. You can access the IoS campaign through our website, where you can start a blog or post photos of your children's gardening efforts. You will also be directed to the RHS website, where you can register for free starter kits of seeds, growing calendars and factsheets as part of their school gardening campaign.

If all primary schools in the UK started practical gardening, nearly five million children aged four to 11 in 21,500 schools would benefit. Anything from a window box to raised beds or, if there is room, an entire plot on school grounds could be cultivated.

The IoS has adopted Kingsway Primary as its beacon Let Children Grow school, and will follow the efforts of Demi and her classmates as they grow vegetables, fruit and flowers over the coming months.

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Schools, whose department also runs a Growing Schools programme offering resources to teachers, gave his backing to the IoS. He said: "Young people really enjoy learning outside the classroom, doing practical things and getting their hand dirty. That's why I'm pleased to be giving my support to the Independent on Sunday and RHS's campaign for school gardening. I'm sure that with the newspaper's support it will go from strength to strength.

"We already know from the success of the DCSF's existing Growing Schools programme that schools recognise the importance of children learning about the environment, where their food comes from and our dependence on natural resources. School gardens can be a great place to teach the curriculum and important life skills and this campaign gives teachers the tools they need to do this."

Chris Collins, the Blue Peter gardener, said: "A garden is an amazing outdoor classroom. Gardening hits all different parts of the curriculum – maths for measuring beds, art, PE and science. Certain pupils, who may not be necessarily brilliant at maths, will shine in this area. They may be quite quiet in the classroom, but intellect comes in different guises, and gardening can flush that out.

"The Independent on Sunday has a lot of kudos and takes subjects seriously, so it is great that the newspaper is getting involved in this important campaign."

The shadow spokesman for Children, Michael Gove said: "Gardening is a fantastic activity for primary school children to get outdoors and learn about nature. It's great that they should be encouraged to get involved at a young age."

Launched in 2007, the RHS Campaign for School Gardening, sponsored by Waitrose, is a nationwide scheme designed to encourage schools to create gardens and teach children the skills of growing plants.

The campaign helps all schools to make the most of gardening whether they have an established garden or are thinking about growing in containers in the playground. More than 8,000 schools have registered with the campaign since its launch, benefiting at least 1.5 million children. The RHS wants 80 per cent of UK primary schools by 2012 to provide pupils with hands-on learning opportunities in school to grow plants and garden sustainably.

Each school is encouraged to progress through the campaign's benchmarking scheme, from planning a school garden (level one) through to having a fully productive garden that is used to teach the curriculum and is shared with the wider community (level five). This month, the charity set up the RHS Campaign for School Gardening Alan Titchmarsh Award. This gives grants of £500 to schools to develop their gardens further after reaching levels three or four of the benchmarking scheme.

A poll of 20 schools already signed up to the RHS campaign found that 68 per cent of teachers said school gardening significantly increased the pupils' awareness of how to care for the environment, while 57 per cent said it had increased children's curiosity about vegetables and healthy eating. The same proportion noticed a significant improvement in the confidence and self-esteem of their pupils.

Teachers have told the RHS that both pupil behaviour and attention improves when they are allowed to learn in the garden.

Schools in London and other major cities are particularly short of space in their grounds for gardening. Yet pupils are also less likely to have access to a garden at home because of inner-city living – making it more crucial that they can grow plants at school.

Dr Ruth Taylor, RHS head of education, said: "School gardens are the linchpin to success in every area of the curriculum, and the benefits will spread through the school and into the wider community. The RHS Campaign for School Gardening provides the springboard for every school to make the most of their outside space."

The first school to sign up to the RHS in September 2007 was St Leonard's Primary in Streatham, south London. Pupils now cook and eat for lunch the vegetables they grow.

Green shoots: Pupils harvest their crops

The school spearheading The Independent on Sunday's Let Children Grow campaign is Kingsway Primary in Goole, east Yorkshire.

With the help of the Royal Horticultural Society, head teacher Liam Jackson and his staff created raised beds, a pond and the beginnings of a community garden last month. Pupils started growing vegetables three weeks ago and have had their first crop – a haul of sweet, young radishes. On Thursday, they sowed broad beans and pumpkin seeds.

Kingsway's Ofsted report last year gave it a "satisfactory" rating in an area of "considerable deprivation". But it praised the head, who arrived six months earlier, for "clear and direct leadership", and said there was a "positive and welcoming atmosphere for learning".

Mr Jackson said he was determined to raise academic achievement and lift Kingsway from near the bottom of the league tables for English, maths and science, and that integrating gardening into all subject areas would help. A third of the 357 children have some form of special educational needs, and a third qualify for free school meals. Healthy eating is a "real issue" for those who bring packed lunches, said Mr Jackson.

"What is in their pack-ups is poor. I cannot say to parents you must put this or that in. But what you get is jam sandwiches, crisps, brightly coloured drinks. Many of our children just see fruit and vegetables come from a sealed tray in a supermarket. I want to raise standards and encourage good behaviour and make children want to come to school and promote healthy eating."

And it's a team effort: teacher Kay Duffin, classroom assistant Hayley Capon and caretaker Brian Outhwaite are also pitching in.

Jane Merrick

What to do next: Planting the first seeds

Want to create a school garden?

Go to independent.co.uk/schoolsgardening to join the Let Children Grow campaign. It has advice on how to get a free starter kit of seeks, a growing calendar, top gardening tips, educational support, and lesson plans from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Teachers: All you need is a window box to grow herbs. For a small vegetable plot, it is easy to build a raised bed using old railway sleepers or planks. Or, if you can, devote a plot of land on school grounds to create an allotment.

Parents: Tell your child's school about our campaign to get it interested.

Already gardening at school?

Tell us about your gardening efforts by creating your own blog. You can upload pictures throughout the year. Or you can follow our Let Children Grow beacon school, Kingsway Primary in Goole. Follow the link on our website to start blogging and to read the Kingsway School blog.

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