Nightingale Community Academy is a rural haven in Wandsworth. Andre Bailey reports.

Students join us with very different levels of prior education. Many have experienced significant challenges and have large gaps in learning due to long periods out of mainstream education, and it is these gaps that we aim to close through opening students’ minds to a wide range of knowledge and new experiences that otherwise they would not have access to. Recently, to fulfil rising demand, we increased provision and currently support more than 120 boys aged between 5 and 19 with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs. 

Within our urban school grounds there’s a fully-fledged working farm. Tom’s farm is not what you would expect to see within the streets of Wandsworth, yet animals are an integral part of our school community. The farm is core to school life and has an enormous educational and therapeutic impact on students, delivering lasting change. 

With the help of reptiles, farm animals and domestic animals, we teach vulnerable students the vital skills of empathy and care, in an environment that many are experiencing for the first time. 

The farm provides an opportunity for students with SEMH needs to learn outside the classroom in a natural environment and discover the world of farming, yet crucially it enables the development of strong connections to education, learning and therapy, and better interactions with friends, teachers, and families. The school farm also has a social and emotional impact, helping students to build a sense of self-worth and respect for themselves and others.

Cuddling a pigmy goat.

There may be an element of hesitation when they first join the school, but very quickly everyone wants to get involved and make the most of this amazing resource. A stimulating and nurturing farm environment helps to re-engage young people with their learning in a unique way, as it helps remove barriers to learning.

It’s an adventure, and our students are involved in all practical elements of running a livestock farm, and they’re empowered to take responsibility for aspects of farm life. It’s not only physical, it helps develop life skills such as problem solving, communication, empathy, and self-awareness.

Students can participate in farm jobs which build a sense of belonging and compassion, from pregnancy scanning the ewes during lambing season, to handling livestock.

In the primary phase the focus is largely therapeutic, and as the students enter key stage 3 the curriculum introduces early accreditation using unit awards. In key stage 4 students can achieve accredited qualifications in horticulture, land-based studies, and animal care through the City and Guilds programmes. This means that students who choose to specialise can achieve industry recognised qualifications that earn UCAS points to enable higher level study.

Tom’s Farm helps young people understand the origins of food and how it should taste. Sometimes meat reared on the farm is prepared by students in the school kitchen alongside produce from the school’s vegetable garden, which students have also helped grow and harvest. Linked to this is learning around the environment and sustainability, as well as healthy eating. 

Cuddling a rabbit.

Animal therapy on the farm can play an important role, particularly when human interventions via traditional therapies are not effective. The human-animal bond is strong, offering unconditional acceptance and support. Pygmy goats are ideal as part of our animal therapy as they have a calm temperament and are highly sociable. They enjoy playful interaction with the students, which brings a smile to everyone’s face. 

Our students often have a fight, flight or freeze response to anxiety-provoking situations. They may react instinctively and impulsively with the skills they’ve learnt in the past, and this sometimes manifests itself in challenging behaviours. The farm is a distraction from the expectations of school and the demands they usually face. It provides students with the guaranteed opportunity to be successful and relieves any pressures they feel at that time.

Space to reflect and find peace of mind, leads to real shifts in behaviour, mental health and wellbeing. Students develop strong, meaningful bonds which deliver enormous benefits. Through observation of life on the farm and connecting with animals, our learners can begin to explore their own thoughts and feelings and topics of emotion, accessing useful metaphors that will allow them to maintain a safe psychological and emotional distance. 

The farm is also an invaluable local community resource, and we have two special schools who visit weekly, as well as after-school clubs. It also attracts hundreds of local young volunteers who help through the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Our longer-term plan is to ensure more people know it is here and to create a valuable community hub.

Andre Bailey
Author: Andre Bailey

Andre Bailey
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Andre Bailey is the principal of Nightingale Community Academy, which has achieved the Pupil Premium Award two years’ running and a Trustee of Coram Life Education.



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