Ideas and Pioneers grantee Rosie Havers discusses what led her to develop her PlantEd idea
Giving Roots to Learning
PlantEd is a programme that seeks to support schools in using food growing as a cross curricular learning context. I am piloting the scheme with four primary schools in Cardiff this academic year.
A bit of background:
Over the last few decades food growing in schools has seen a huge growth in popularity. This has been very much part of the wider ‘food education’ agenda that has emerged in response to concerns around childhood obesity. A 2011 statistic from the National Foundation for Educational Research claimed that 80% of schools in the UK grow food in some capacity. Yet in a Defra taskforce report on school gardening in 2012, almost all of the 1,300 schools surveyed found time and resource pressures to significantly limit their ability to incorporate food growing into pupils’ learning in a regular and meaningful way. This is something I have repeatedly found in my own work too. The prevailing ‘healthy-eating’ focus of school gardening is peripheral to the core curriculum, so gardening inevitably becomes side-lined when time and budgets are tight.
Improving academic and health impacts:
The impetus for PlantEd emerged from a six month research process with twelve primary schools in Cardiff. This showed that by reframing food growing as a fundamentally academic activity, the above barriers could (with some extra digging power) be removed. Meanwhile, it would offer new possibilities to benefit pupils, schools and beyond. (More detail can be found in the full research paper).
Teachers felt that shifting the prevailing focus of school gardening away from healthy eating and towards wider academic themes could directly address their core priorities of pupil engagement and attainment. Food growing is not extracurricular- it can be linked to almost any academic subject. Diverse themes around food and farming span the history of humankind, diverse cultures and geographies, fundamental scientific and mathematical concepts, and many of the key issues faced by contemporary society. Using food growing as a broad learning context offers a tangible, relatable context for students to see how academic subjects link to one another, to their own lives, and to the wider world. This provides powerful motivation for students of all abilities by giving a ‘point’ to learning. Almost all teachers considered such potential sufficient to allow increased time and resource allocation to gardening.
Moving away from the healthy eating focus of food growing in school could be seen to neglect some fairly urgent issues around children’s’ wellbeing. Interestingly however, teachers thought that a less explicit emphasis on health promotion could actually address issues like obesity in a more effective way. The whole ‘food education’ agenda is based on the premise that if you tell children how to eat healthily, they will. But young people (particularly at primary level) have little control over what they eat. On top of this, their parents’ food choices are often strongly dictated by income and circumstance. Teachers found that existing food education content therefore risked causing damaging stigma around eating habits and bodies that could perpetuate both over and under eating. They felt these messages could get through in a more sensitive (and therefore more effective) way, simply through the experience of food growing, as well as developing wider academic interest.
Beyond the school gates:
Introducing broader themes around food and farming is not only crucial for improving the academic and health impacts of school gardening. It is also crucial learning in and of itself. Our food system lies at the roots of many of the pressing issues of this century. Food production is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gasses- ahead of all transport and manufacturing and coming second only to electricity and heat production. Once food leaves our farms, the way it is processed and distributed causes even more pollution. It also causes some big health problems: currently over one billion people are obese, while another billion are malnourished. And along the way at least a third of everything we have produced ends up in the bin. Yet the topic of food in the school curriculum fails to reach beyond decontextualised facts about the nutritional content of different sandwiches.
Exploring themes relating to our food system provides an opportunity to engage young people with key contemporary issues in a way that is empowering rather than disillusioning. Too often children are presented with discrete, isolated crises, which they therefore feel little connection to and little power to solve. The lens of food however, reveals the interconnectedness of crises: how spheres as diverse as health, politics and the environment, are all intimately linked to one another and to our own lives. This is another important contributor to the improved motivation that comes from making connections in learning.
During the research, demand emerged across schools for support in introducing food growing as a cross curricular learning context. This initiated plans for a pilot project, which called for a second phase of research: figuring out how all of this might work in practice.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the quick fix I had hoped for. Teacher training would be too expensive and wouldn’t reach all staff. Resources would help but wouldn’t be enough. With the almighty time pressure faced by teachers, the only thing that would really do it, they said, would be having someone to come into school and help. Crucially though, they suggested that this would only be necessary as a kick-starter: after running through a gardening year with support, they would have the confidence, skills, resources and routine to carry on independently. A key aim when designing the pilot framework was therefore ensuring that these changes became sustainably embedded. If possible, this would open exiting potential for working with many more schools in the future.
We are currently half way through the pilot year, and if you want to read about what we’ve been up to, visit the PlantEd blog (for a clear outline of what the programme involves, see ‘What do we do?’ in the ‘About’ section). A full impact assessment of the pilot will be carried out in July, but perhaps the most important findings will come from September onwards. Will schools keep on gardening independently? And if not, would any other kind of support enable them to? If ‘Yes’, then it’s all systems go!