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How a stay on a farm opens the minds of disruptive kids

Andrew Hickman

30th April, 2010

Teacher Jamie Feilden came up with the idea of bringing at-risk students to his family's Somerset farm for a week in 2004. Six years on and the results are breathtaking...

'How difficult can it be to catch a cow,' says Jayden, wrestling with his wellington boots and pulling faded farm overalls over his hoodie. At this time of the morning, he'd normally be getting ready for school. But today, it's into the waiting truck and off to a field of cows that need to be taken to market.

Minutes later, he and six other teenagers are whooping as they pursue five bemused cattle. There are excited cheers as the group steer unlucky number 23 towards a pen.

It's a long way from the concrete playgrounds of London. But that's where, six years ago, the idea for Jamie's Farm was born.

Jamie Feilden was teaching at a South London school with a high rate of exclusions and disciplinary problems. Keen to show his students something from his own upbringing in the Somerset countryside, Feilden brought two lambs from his family's farm to school.

The reaction of the students surprised everyone. The number of playground fights fell and some of the most challenging students took responsibility for feeding the lambs at break times.

A year later Feilden organised to take a small group of students to his family farm for a week.

'I wanted them to have opportunities for real physical achievement and to experience the beauty of the British countryside. I also wanted them to see where their food comes from,' he says.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating week of lambing, mucking out, feeding animals, walks, communal cooking and therapy sessions with Jamie's mother Tish, a former teacher and trained psychotherapist.

Buoyed by the impact the experience appeared to have on young people, between 2005 and 2008, Feilden organised a further ten trips for students at risk of being excluded from his and other inner-city schools.

Students from some of the Britain's toughest neighbourhoods talked about the peace of siren-free sleep, the relief of not having to watch their backs and how they were moved by the landscape.

Soon, a pattern developed in the feedback the project received from schools and teachers.

‘Where other types of intervention had failed, many of the students who had spent time at the farm were showing renewed interest in school and were no longer at risk of being excluded,' says Ruth Carney, who also works on the farm and has researched the longer term impact it has on the children.

Care farming

Ruth is not alone in recognising the positive influence that spending time on working farms can have on young people. The Feildens are part of a growing network of farmers across Britain who are members of The National Care Farming Initiative (NCFI). The NCFI began in 2005 with the aim of combining 'care of the land with care of people'.

Care farms have already had success on the continent and with increasing availability of government funding, more and more UK farmers are recognising the economic potential of such diversification. It's estimated that there are up to one hundred such farms across Britain.

Most care farms are partnerships between social workers and farmers. But when Jamie founded his eponymous farm in 2008, there was a difference.

At Jamie's Farm, everything, from milking to group therapy sessions, is conducted by the Feildens and their small team. Greeted in the farmyard on arrival, one of the first things young visitors are asked to do is hand in their mobile phones and their MP3 players.

'It gives them an opportunity to be away from the pressures of home and the pressures of street life,' says Tish Feilden, 'it's part of our philosophy that coming to the farm is a fresh start.'

Later on, they walk around the farm and visit a peaceful spot where Richard, Jamie's father and Tish's husband was tragically killed while felling a tree in 2005. A silence falls over the group as Jamie explains that his father's memory motivates him to invite people to share life on the farm.

Back in the warmth of the family farmhouse the kids tuck into a gutsy home-cooked dinner. This is an entirely new experience for some, who are more likely to eat in front of the TV or in their room.

Room to grow

Tish Feilden points out the transformations she's seen in students' behaviour over the week. 'You watch how they physically soften. They open rather like a flower, their hoodies go down, their faces come up, their eyes get brighter, they become more focused.'

During the week, every student plays some role in preparing a meal. Whilst some are cooking, others are in a neighbouring barn crafting cushions or T-shirts. It's during these type of activities that students seem to relax, a process that is no doubt aided by a drastic sugar reduction, which is strict farm policy.

As the atmosphere becomes calmer, students and staff gather for meetings in which they're encouraged to comment on one another's progress and to explore their feelings about school and their lives more generally.

'It's incredible to see students described as "rowdy" and "disruptive" in the staffroom, relaxing after a hard day working as a team and becoming more comfortable talking about how they feel,' says their teacher Jonathan Sobczyk, on his second visit to the farm.

In the last of these meetings, students describe how their brief time in the country has impacted them.

'I'm never going to forget delivering that lamb,' say one student, who has resolved to move beyond a conviction for robbery he got when he was just 14. ‘Bringing a new life into the world is something different.'

Looking out of the window at the fields, another of the boys from East London explains how he would like to buy a bit of land and live in the countryside when he's older. 'I enjoy getting up in the morning and getting the most out of the days,' he says.

Then it's back to work one last time, as students are deployed to different parts of the farm to feed the pigs, sheep, cows and chickens.

Looking on, five years after taking a couple of lambs to school, Feilden is still buzzing with enthusiasm for the project.

‘The moments that really amaze me are when you see a child look at a field and say "can I run?",' he says with an excited smile.

‘They often can't believe the space and freedom to play and be a child again.'

Jamie's Farm is a not-for profit organisation which aims to support the development of vulnerable young people by providing opportunities for achievement, wellbeing and sustainable change in an agricultural setting.

Andrew Hickman is a freelance journalist

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