NATURE & NURTURE
In the idyllic surroundings of Jamie Feilden’s Wiltshire farm, disadvantaged young people gain support and grow in confidence while caring for animals and acquiring rural skills
In the picturesque surroundings of Jamie Feilden’s Wiltshire farm, disadvantaged youngsters grow in confidence while caring for animals and acquiring rural skills
ababy lamb bit me on the nose,” says one pupil, with his hand up in class. Not a new version of “The dog ate my homework” excuse, but an excited boy telling the teacher about his week at Jamie’s Farm. The Jamie in question is Jamie Feilden, a former schoolteacher whose groundbreaking charity is changing the lives of ten-to-18-year-olds at risk of exclusion from mainstream education. As a less-than-perfect student himself – “I struggled at school and was a borderline ADHD sufferer” – he poured his energy into looking after animals on his family’s smallholding near Bath. His mother, Tish, a psychotherapist, was keen to support what proved to be such a helpful focus. “She was the driving force behind this project,” Jamie says. “When it came to offering schools and pupils a way of getting disruptive children back on track, she was immediately on board.”
It was later (while teaching in Croydon in 2003) that Jamie decided there had to be a better way to work with children who continually misbehaved. “The school was in a deprived area with 65 nationalities. Every day was a battlefield. I became convinced that if I could take some of these kids to a farm to do physical, rewarding work – real jobs with responsibility and a purpose – they would become positive and confident.” With a small investment from his mother and the use of her farmhouse as a base (with a horsebox for an office), the idea took root. While it was his mother who had nurtured Jamie’s love of farming, it was the sudden death of his father Richard, following an accident on the farm, that spurred Jamie on. “We had talked about starting a business together and he was keen on the charity idea,” he says. “I keep striving in his memory.”
Jamie continued to work part-time while piloting the scheme – building a network of supporters within education at the charity Teach First – and after two years they were ready to launch. Since then, they have worked with 5,000 children. His mother’s property was soon too small for the numbers who wanted to come, so a loan from the ethical bank Triodos and investment from a local consortium enabled them to purchase Hill House Farm in Wiltshire, still the charity’s HQ , and they have bought two more, in Longtown, Herefordshire, and Redbrook, Monmouthshire, which opened last January.
Groups of ten or 12 pupils come throughout the year to stay for a week. Today it’s the turn of Harris Academy from Orpington,
“I was convinced that if these kids could do physical, rewarding work, they would become more positive and confident”
In bonding with the animals, the children learn to understand their emotions
Kent. They will be chopping logs for firewood, mucking out the pigsties, grooming the horses and helping with winter lambing. (The farm keeps a variety of breeds that will give birth in different seasons.) All are out of their comfort zone, and some are frightened of horses. One of their first tasks is to work with a horse that has been badly treated in the past; it is frightened of having its rug put on, but it needs to wear one from autumn until spring. “A horse will not respond if you are fearful or aggressive,” Tish explains. “You need to be calm and centred, to breathe steadily and gain control.” Under her supervision, the children learn how to approach the horse and gain its confidence. In bonding with the animals, they also learn that if they can control their emotions, they are more likely to get what they want (and not be told off by the teacher). Meanwhile, there’s an emergency in the lambing shed. A ewe is straining to give birth to twins, but one of them has got its leg stuck. “I’m not touching that yucky stuff,” says one boy, but, when shown what to do, it’s thanks to him that both lambs are saved.
“There is always a good mix of kids,” Jamie says, “and although they might try to test you at first, the dominant ones tend to become milder in company. We see young people with anger issues, anxiety, depression or other mental health problems. Often the cause is low self-esteem. Disruptive behaviour can be a cry for help. I can empathise with them. I know the value of work, but many of those who come have never had a member of their family in work, have no father figure or ever eaten together round a table at home.”
Every evening, the farm visitors sit down in the kitchen and talk, while helping themselves to nuts and fruit (crisps and energy
drinks are not on offer). “I wanted this to feel like a family farm, not an institution,” Jamie says. There’s a games room, a break-out space with sofas and, if their energy is still not spent, they can practise their drumming around the bonfire. The rules at the welly-boot camp include a digital detox. Mobile phones are taken away, as are ipads and other electronic devices; if they don’t accept the rules, they are sent home – “but that happens only to one in a hundred”.
The charity is not cheap to run. Each school pays a fee of £6,000 to send a group of 12. Other funds come from trusts and foundations such as Children in Need and Comic Relief, and a third from farm-earned income. This is made from selling pork, beef and lamb locally and renting out the three farmhouses for family celebrations, hen parties (with fresh eggs for breakfast) or friends’ get-togethers. Compared with the cost of not tackling anti-social behaviour at a young age, it’s money well spent, for, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), “Every cohort of permanently excluded pupils will go on to cost the state an extra £2.1 billion in education, health, benefits and criminal justice costs.” Its report, in October 2017, stated: “Excluded children are the most vulnerable: twice as likely to be in the care of the state, four times more likely to have grown up in poverty, seven times more likely to have a special educational need and ten times more likely to suffer recognised mental health problems.” The results of a week on the farm can be seen in the pupils’ vastly improved behaviour, as noted by their teachers. A remarkable 69 per cent who were at risk of exclusion are removed from that category just six weeks later, when a follow-up session is held. Harry, 13, an ADHD sufferer, says: “I am not being told off as much now. I find it hard to concentrate at school, but the farm helped me to calm down. I am working on being still in class, and not giggling as much.”
Each child who attends the farm receives a certificate marking their achievements and underlining the lessons they have learned. For example: “Tom would make an amazing farrier because he is great with horses. Try to get the teachers on your side so you don’t
“I wanted this to feel like a family farm, not an institution”
get detention and can play football after school instead.” These prove very effective, but often it’s the less expected lessons that seem to make the most profound impact. One surprising comment is from Charley, 14: “The best part was climbing up a muddy hill in the dark,” she says, remembering the evening walks, in hi-vis jackets, with Hamish, a retired sheepdog, on a lead. Not an obvious highlight for an urban girl more used to Instagram and Spotify, but a five-mile hike on a dank and dark autumn night seems to have worked its own particular magic.
For more information about Jamie’s Farm and to make a donation, visit jamiesfarm.org.uk.
Jamie (opposite, above) has now welcomed 5,000 young people to his farm – giving them a sense of responsibility in a safe, homely environment
Jamie’s Farm has proved such a success that a fourth one is planned to open next year in East Sussex