Farm Of The Week: Children at home on the school farm

A vision to convert surrounding fields into a working farm at a special school has been realised. Ben Barnett takes a closer look.

14 year old Heidi Marsden and Lucy Coughlin walking goats at the farm

A BRIGHTLY painted wheelbarrow with fresh carrots, potatoes and beetroot for sale outside reception is a hint of what’s to come as you enter Mowbray School in Bedale.

With more than 130 pupils, it is the largest school catering for children with special educational needs in North Yorkshire and befitting of its rural community setting, it has its own working farm.

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Five-and-a-half acres of land to the rear of the school buildings is provided rent-free by North Yorkshire County Council. Set out among the grassland are enclosed paddocks which, on a visit to the farm earlier in the week, were home to more than 100 hens, 15 sheep, five geese, five pigs, three turkeys, two Shetland ponies and two pygmy goats.

Next to the paddocks is a vegetable plot and polytunnels where potatoes, onions, carrots, peas, garlic, beetroot, spinach and tomatoes, among others, are grown. Flowers are grown, cut and sold on a seasonal basis too.

The sale of eggs proves to be the farm’s biggest money spinner. They are sold to parents and staff, and to a local residential home in the town this summer.

There’s great excitement at the school whenever there’s a meat sale. Last week, three sheep and five pigs were readied for the butcher.

The meat goes to Thirsk-based Taste Tradition, where it is packaged and labelled to identify the meat as products of Mowbray Children and Young People’s Farm. The finished products return to the school and are snapped up. Headteacher Jonathan Tearle says: “We advertise the meat to parents and staff, and all the produce is gone in an hour – sausages, joints, tenderloins, the lot.

“We don’t hide it from the pupils that these animals are here for their meat so none of them have names except for our goats and the Shetland ponies.”

Livestock taken for slaughter is replaced quickly. Ten Beltex cross sheep are set to be delivered soon.

Mr Tearle arrived at the school more than a decade ago and envisaged the creation of a farm to transform the educational experience of children who, he says, were under-achieving at the time.

Many of the school’s pupils have challenging behaviour and have been unable to settle in mainstream education.

“I have always liked the countryside and always thought it would be lovely to be able to do this and start a farm,” Mr Tearle says.

“I’m quite envious of farmers and the lifestyle they live. Most of my teaching career has been spent in Leeds.

“When I arrived, none of this was here and the children were spending a lot of time studying academic subjects and they weren’t achieving, so we set up the farm and many have gone on to jobs and college places in agriculture.”

The school offers City and Guild qualifications and Entry Level qualifications linked to farming. “Most children who come here live in rural areas so if they are going to get jobs there is a high probability that it will be connected with rural industry,” Mr Tearle says.

“There are therapeutic benefits for pupils as well. Children with severe autism come over to where the pigs are and will calm right down and they can do a lot of the jobs to do with animals.

“We have been really fortunate. Without the support of North Yorkshire County Council this would not have happened.” The farm is on course to pay for itself over five years, he said, after £20,000 was allocated to getting the project off the ground.

The cause has been helped by the local community, with funds donated from an annual cricket match held by Crakehall Cricket Club, from SSAFA, the national Armed Forces charity, Wensleydale Ladies Circle, East Witton Church, Betty’s, Skipton Building Society, Masham Sheep Fair and Cockburn’s Butchers.

Mr Tearle says: “Another thing we’ve tried to do is to create more local employment because we know so many of our children have left school and haven’t gone into employment. We now have three former pupils who are paid to help run the farm alongside staff.”

The farm was started five years ago with a coop for four hens and Mr Tearle believes it is now the only working farm of its scale in the country specifically created for special needs children.

There is a rolling timetable for different groups of schoolchildren to work on the farm alongside their time in the classroom.

The outdoor lessons are a chance for children to develop a range of skills, which they have been putting to good use by working alongside a joiner to design, cost and build a hen house. A lot of the fencing around the paddocks have also been put up with the help of pupils.

The school also has links with a local working farm, Hilltop Farm at Ilton near Masham, which some of the older pupils visit weekly.

Mr Tearle says: “Some of the children are quite disaffected and have been excluded from mainstream schools and have huge behavioural issues but they come down here and suddenly there is the farm and they become successful doing this.

“We are teaching numeracy and literacy down on the farm, and communication skills and developing independence, as well as all about the animals and how to care for them.

“The farm attracts families to the school. They can see there are possibilities of employment.”

This year, children took on a new challenge by showing sheep and the school became the first to exhibit animals at the Great Yorkshire Show.

Students were charged with preparing and parading the animals and took to the show rings as part of the Young Handlers competition, where they picked up fourth, fifth and sixth place. The school also entered wool fleeces from some of the farm’s Jacob sheep and came a respectable third in the class.