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Schools: Gardening

Volume 782: debated on Monday 24 April 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage school gardening, to ensure that every child understands the environment and has an early connection to nature.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as RHS ambassador.

My Lords, the science national curriculum requires that children are taught about plants and can identify common wild and garden plants. Guidance encourages schools to use the local environment so that children can investigate plants growing in their habitat. The government-backed 1 million trees for schools campaign gives millions of children the chance to plant saplings in their school grounds and communities, helping them to connect with nature and make their school grounds and neighbourhoods greener.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Numerous reports have shown that children as young as four suffer from depression and anxiety. Research proves that gardening is not only therapeutic for them but gives them a sense of continuity, responsibility and an understanding of food production. It can help them with subjects across the curriculum, and even with a career in horticulture. Will the Government work with the RHS school gardening campaign to deliver gardening opportunities to schools across the country and urge Ofsted to take such provision into account when inspecting schools?

The noble Baroness is quite right about the therapeutic benefits of gardening for children. I know that the RHS—I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her ambassadorship—has a great campaign in schools for this. That campaign now has more than 32,000 schools and organisations engaged, including 68% of primaries and 78% of secondaries, reaching 6 million children. As far as Ofsted is concerned, we do not want to load it up with too many specific, narrow requirements, but school inspectors consider the breadth and depth of the school curriculum and its impact on children. Inspectors will note where a school’s use of outdoor space has a positive impact. They also expect schools to provide rich and varied extra-curricular activities, which may well include gardening.

My Lords, while warmly endorsing the RHS campaign, I would make another point to my noble friend. Could he encourage teachers, particularly career teachers, to look favourably upon the many interesting educational developments that come from studying horticulture at a much greater level? There are many of these amazing careers open, but very often we find that teachers downgrade them. That annoys me enormously.

My noble friend is right that there are many good careers in horticulture, landscape gardening, gardening et cetera. We invested heavily in enhancing the careers provision in schools through our Careers & Enterprise Company. I know that this is something it has looked at, and that many schools take this quite seriously. Indeed, at Cambridge special school in Hammersmith pupils do a BTEC in land-based studies using city farm space attached to the school. This has been very beneficial to many graduates’ careers.

My Lords, research by the Royal Horticultural Society shows that its Campaign for School Gardening can contribute to a sustainable environment, which is important because schoolchildren walk along roads where legal limits on air pollution have already been breached in 16 areas just this year. When will the air quality action plan to cut illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide be published? The election is no excuse, because Cabinet Office guidelines are absolutely clear that purdah rules can be lifted where public health is at risk.

The noble Baroness has wandered slightly off my brief, but I will take this back. Of course, the Government are developing a 25-year environment plan to achieve our manifesto commitment to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than we found it.

My Lords, there is an amazing pool of ignorance among children and young people as to where their food comes from. I am not talking about vegetables in this case but milk, eggs, cheese and meat. In most cities there are now city farms, and farms are very willing to accommodate children and young people to show them where their food comes from, so would the Minister encourage this practice?

Most certainly. It is absolutely essential that children are taken out of their environment. I know that there is now Oasis’s city farm in Waterloo. There is also a very good organisation called Jamie’s Farm which a number of schools send children to so that they learn about farming, crop growing and animals and vegetables.

My Lords, I was in York a few days ago, where there was a row of 20 new houses in dark brick, with dark windows, fences and dark pavements. One of them had hanging baskets, pots and window boxes. This completely lifted the appearance of the whole thing. On the therapeutic aspects, this needs real encouragement from not only the RHS but also the National Trust. Would the Minister please also turn the attention of the appropriate part of government to the issue of allotments, which give many city people the opportunity to go out and do some gardening?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s comment about the therapeutic effect—both the British Medical Council and Natural England commented on this—particularly for children with disadvantages of some kind. I have seen this for myself in alternative provision schools and special schools. I will certainly pass on his comments about allotments.

Given the educational value of these gardens, now that the Minister has had a windfall of time landing in his diary over the next few weeks, will he find time to dig through the weeds of the school funding formula to see whether head teachers will have enough resources for school gardens? Then perhaps the seeds of doubt will sprout about whether the line he is about to give us about the school funding formula is wearing a little thin.

I am most impressed with the noble Lord’s ability to weave into this Question something which might appear to be so off-piste, but he will know, from his experience of having done my job, that when all the MPs disappear to try to get re-elected it is the Lords Minister who does all the work. However, I will attempt to come back to him with a more fulsome answer to his question.

My Lords, there is a great deal of public awareness about the developmental pressure on playing fields, but I do not think there is any about growing space. Gardening takes room—less room than sport—but it is very important. How is the Minister informed of those pressures and how is he protecting those resources?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. We are very keen to protect school land and school playing field land. There is a legal requirement on anyone holding public land which has been used for a maintained school or academy in the last eight years—or 10 years in the case of some playing field land—to seek consent from the Secretary of State. This will include land used not just for playing fields but for horticultural purposes.

My Lords, the Ashden charity, of which my daughter-in-law is the chairman, gives awards for sustainable energy across the world, including in England. It gave an award to a primary school which dug up a small amount of the playground and planted vegetables. Does the Minister think that this ought to be encouraged?

I certainly do. I have not heard of the charity to which the noble and learned Baroness refers but I know that other schools have been doing that. It is certainly something we would be keen to encourage.