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Sustainability as a vehicle for education

Posted in Models by Kate Archdeacon on November 4th, 2009


Photograph: Anita Maric/News Team International

From “The sausage squad” by Chris Arnot, 27 October 2009

Gloucester Old Spots are thin on the ground in Coventry, UK. But then so are alpacas, pygmy goats, Jacob’s sheep or, indeed, sheep of any kind. Yet Cardinal Wiseman school, in the north-east of the city, is home to them all. Ducks, chickens and bantams as well, plus a veritable menagerie of parrots, guinea pigs, rabbits and a rare tortoise or two. On the principle set by Noah’s Ark, there are at least two of most species here at the winner of the DCSF award for sustainable schools. Only the Gloucester Old Spot disports itself in splendid isolation, not far from the touchline of a football pitch. It has had even more room to roam since its compatriots were despatched to the slaughterhouse, en route to becoming links in the school’s award-winning brand of sausages.

“We thought we’d keep this one as she’s handsome enough to enter for shows,” says Sean O’Donovan, assistant head, leaning over to scratch the sow’s stomach as she luxuriates in a shaft of autumnal sunshine. Eventually, she’ll get around to chomping the windfall apples from the school’s abundant orchard that year 10 pupils Joseph Stevens and Craig Pears have been scattering about her paddock. O’Donovan looks on approvingly before glancing down at the pig again and confiding: “We’re going to artificially inseminate her soon. In fact, we’re just waiting for the sperm. For some reason it has to come from Ireland.”…

…The school has Rural Dimension status, despite being sited amid swathes of suburbia in a comparatively poor part of the city and close to two of its most deprived estates. In recent years, the descendants of Irish immigrants have been joined at Cardinal Wiseman by Africans and Poles as well as a minority of non-Catholics from other parts of the world. Around 20% of the 1,450 pupils qualify for free school meals.

The products of school-reared livestock don’t feature on the menu at lunchtime. “We just couldn’t produce enough,” says O’Donovan. But there’s no shortage of demand from teachers and parents. The sausages, after all, have been voted West Midland Bangers of the Year. Part of the school’s mission is to make urban children more aware of where their food comes from. “I tell them from the start that these little piglets and these little lambs are eventually going to be slaughtered,” says O’Donovan. “We had one girl, a volunteer in our animal care club, who became very attached to the piglets. She kept telling me that she didn’t want to see them go – until, that is, they grew bigger and started biting her shoelaces. Then she couldn’t wait to have them sent away.”

Dealing with large livestock can be tricky, as Stevens, 15, has been telling me before scattering apples around the pig’s paddock. “She once trod on my foot when I was trying to feed her,” he recalls, wincing at the memory. He also had a bruise on his thigh after being kicked by a particularly frisky horse. Undeterred, he hopes to work with large animals when he leaves school – “preferably in Africa”. As soon as he reaches the sixth form, he plans to put his name down on the lengthy waiting list to visit Cardinal Wiseman’s sister school in Malawi.

O’Donovan led the first party of six there earlier this year. They took with them 300 packets of vegetable seeds and spent a fortnight either teaching, sports coaching or offering advice on ways of rearing chickens. “It was evidently a life-changing experience to see a place very different from our own comparatively wealthy but wasteful society,” says the headteacher, Helen Knight. “They all suffered food poisoning, but they all want to go back again.”

Knight took over at Cardinal Wiseman five years ago and immediately saw the value of the work that O’Donovan had first instigated over 30 years ago, long before sustainability had become fashionable. “I was really excited,” she says, “about the idea of a language college with a rural dimension. It fits in well with the Catholic ethos of the school because it’s about making a difference locally while recognising that we’re part of an international community. In other words, it isn’t just about a group of kids doing things with animals and learning to grow crops. It’s about applying that philosophy to everything around us.”

As the Teaching Awards judges noted in their report: “Using sustainability as a vehicle for education has quite obviously enlivened the curriculum, making it realistic and pertinent to students who are our future.”

Read the full article by Chris Arnot.

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