Farm plants seeds of a better future for young people

ON a patch of hillside hemmed-in by the houses of a council estate a handbell rings out and an assortment of young people down tools – not pens and pencils, but trowels, spades and pick-axes.

Their rest is deserved. The handsome new building they troop into for their break came into being through their work. They filled out the grant application forms and they made the presentations to argue why this project was a deserving cause. Then having been given the cash, they built the place with their own hands.

It's not bad going for a bunch who have been judged more or less unteachable by conventional methods. It's also a testament to the benefits that digging and planting and weeding and looking after farm stock can deliver. Discovering in the outdoors the ability to accomplish tasks can do wonders for the self-confidence of youngsters who, for one reason or another, find working inside at academic objectives largely beyond them.

At this place they are usually required to work as a team, an arrangement which helps socialise the alienated who come from fractured backgrounds – the majority of them. There's also the solace that plants and greenery and farmyard animals can bring to those who have grown up knowing only grubby concrete and streetscapes.

This psychological benefit is unquantifiable but it certainly exists. It can be seen in the youngsters' improved attitude and their motivation towards work. Those who have trouble outside containing their aggression may succeed in curbing their outbursts for fear of upsetting the animals. Cows and Shetland ponies can make ideal anger-management tools.

The hillside farm at Girlington in Bradford maybe small, only three-acres, but it's having a big effect. It's story goes back 15 years and it was about to go under until it merged with another organisation nearby, the Bradford Police Club for Young People. The two came together to form the Prism Youth Project and the renewed farm part of it will be officially opened next week.

Not long before their big day, efforts to get the place shipshape hit a snag. The ornamental pond for the Koi carp sprang a leak. But this was incidental. The attending civic dignitaries next Friday are likely to admire the work already accomplished here and the sense of purpose it has generated among those who previously had none.

Its formula rests on a foundation of commitment and common purpose. This so impressed Bradford builder Tony Cahill it changed his life. Tony is winding-down his own building business to become a member of staff and make construction studies part of the curriculum.

Between 20-25 young people aged 11-16 come here each day. Towards the top end of the farm, a small group were in a pen enthusiastically involved in an activity rarely encountered on the streets of Bradford estates. A couple of sheep were being sheared with clippers. One of the helpers, Ashley Grayson, 14, from Heaton comes to Prism Farm five days a week. "I like seeing the animals," he said. "You get good experiences. And I like the chickens, feeding them. I want to work in a garage, although I wouldn't mind working with animals." He said he had been excluded from school for fighting.

Before it became Prism, the farm had one member of staff. Now it employs 10 full and part-time staff and in the evening, adult volunteers come to help with the animals. Staff member Marvin Gaye, 26, teaches propagation techniques. "It's practical work and is taught in modules, so all the children come away from here with something," says Marvin who studied criminality at Huddersfield University with an

emphasis on youth crime and youth justice.

He was supervising the preparation of a raised bed for potatoes and pumpkins while Ayrton Thompson, 13, wielded a rake and complained, "It's a woman's job." Ayrton comes here five days a week. "I've been kicked out of five schools – every school – for fighting," he said.

They can do NVQs, BTECs or take other certficates in two broad areas – animal welfare (cleaning, feeding, grooming, injections, shearing, worming, veterinary appointments, birthing and mucking out) and horticulture (planting, digging, building beds, weeding, germination, propagation, pest disease, health and safety, compost management).

With Tony Cahill on the team, the farm will also be able to offer construction

(fencing, wall building, decking, path laying, painting, roofing).

Paul Corfield, 23, who is now on the staff, first experienced the farm from the other point of view. "I had a very poor attendance at school. I was sent here for two days a week and fell in love with it.

"When I started it was a big garage with tin huts. The farm was run-down and was existing by selling eggs and vegetables and on donations from the community. It was really struggling. The farm gave me a chance to turn my life around. It boosted my attendance at school and I did my GCSEs. I think problems with kids now are more severe than in my day. A lot of them here are severely dyslexic. A classroom is their worst nightmare. We have one classroom session a day, with things like life-skills, English and maths, the rest is outdoor.

"Most complete a BTEC which for them is a massive task. They have no possible future at school, although some have gone back to complete their GCSEs.

"You need patience – 60 per cent of your time is dealing with challenging behaviour. You get good days and you get bad days.

"There's no other place I know like this – there should be more of them. I'm passionate about it, I couldn't imagine myself anywhere else."

Kate Craven is one of two staff members in charge of two dexter cows, seven Anglo nubian goats and two white sareen goats, two Shetland ponies, eight white-faced woodland sheep and assorted chickens, ducks and rabbits. "The volunteers come in at four and five o'clock to help," she says. "There's one student who is looking to be a vet."

Tony Cahill, 44, was brought in when the farm got the funding to renew the old collection of buildings. "They lived out of garages and sheds," he says. "I suggested they demolish and build their own place. It seemed a bit bizarre, off the scale really.

"But we got going and I realised kids were interested in it. We had a 3D picture in colour done of the project, because kids can't make much of an architect's plan, and I explained it.

"Young people love to see something finished. My policy is to get things completed so they can say 'we've done that'. As they progressed, they earned tools as they went along for finishing tasks. So at the end of the build they had learned a lot and they had their own set of tools as well.

"For me it's the perfect job, it give me a buzz. It's a vocation. We can't go back to basics with them because these kids don't have basics. I try to get the best out of them – I know it's there. They've had a really rough time. We can't do anything about their past. We can do something about their future. What we can achieve here, it's limitless."