Charlton Manor Primary School

I went to visit Charlton Manor Primary School in south east London this morning. I spent an hour there with headteacher Tim Baker and his colleagues and learned how they’re exploring environmental issues with their pupils through the lens of food.

I’d come across Tim Baker via a guest blog he recently wrote for NAEE. In it he described the positive impact the introduction of bees and beekeeping has had on pupils and school life. While speaking to Tim, I learned that beekeeping formed part of a hands-on, experiential approach to teaching and learning all built around the development of a deep understanding of food and wellbeing.

Food and wellbeing have become central theme around which a lot of the school’s curriculum is built. Initially inspired by a Jamie Oliver speech on childhood obesity at a nearby school, Charlton Manor decided to explore it from all angles. Beekeeping and pollination is just one part of this, pupils also learn about how food is grown, where it is grown, how it is processed, food miles, its health impacts and what happens to left over food and food scraps..

The school has a full time gardener and beyond the central playground, there is a wonderful ‘secret garden’ - a sort of mini Chelsea Physic Garden, but set up for children. Pupils from every year group take lessons outdoors on a regular basis, they either sit on the benches below the Mulberry tree to read and discuss; or they get hands on in the garden; using the leaves on plants to develop addition and multiplication skills in maths; or taking in sounds, sights and smells to inspire creative thinking and writing. There is also, of course, an eco-club where children get involved in vegetable gardening, composting, tending chickens and, of course, beekeeping.

The garden also has a pond from where an adult frog had escaped into the playground at break time. Similar to how Tim described pupils’ new found calmness about swarming bees in his NAEE blog, the children were interested and concerned about the frog - but not ‘freaked out’ about it. After watching Mr Frog wander across the playground for a few minutes and discussing its predicament, two pupils volunteered to pick it up and return it gently to the pond. What was great was that there wasn’t much of a fuss; these children are used to interacting with wildlife.

Back in the headteachers office, with Tim, we discussed the philosophy of the school. Tim is passionately in favour of giving children a real world experience of how things work. He wants them learning with their hands, minimising the amount of time spent at desks, staring at whiteboards.

Tim told me how he feels that there is still far too much emphasis on the old three R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) in education. It is a Victorian paradigm of teaching that is theory heavy, stifles creativity and separates children from the real world. This prevents them from developing three R’s that Tim emphasises instead: Respect; Responsibility; Resilience.

Charlton Manor scored ‘Good’ in its last OFSTED inspection; I couldn’t help thinking that if it strived to be ‘Outstanding’ it would come at the cost of all the wonderful hands-on learning that the school does. Besides, there are other ways to measure how good a school is, staff retention being one. Tim has been headteacher at Charlton Manor for fourteen years, his colleague who showed me round has been there for three years (he is still classified as a newbie) - this is clearly a great place to work; is there a better measure than that?

Sadly schools like this are the exception rather than the norm, I asked Tim how many schools are like his; how many put an emphasis on practical and outdoor learning? He guessed it would be less than 10%. I asked him what’s needed to create and sustain a school like Charlton Manor, he told me it is about recruiting staff who share the philosophy of active learning - teachers who are motivated to innovate and not succumb to the ease of book and theory based teaching in soulless classroom environments. He is inspiring teachers from all over the country and overseas, I was one of several visitors this week. Over the last few years they’ve had visitors from all over the UK as well as Australia and China.

Before I left, I visited the school chef in the purpose built kitchen classroom. He was preparing, with the help of the gardener, a lesson on Stone Age cooking. A group of Year 3 pupils were about to come in to create a simple dough that they would then wrap around small Willow branches. They were then heading outside to the forest school garden where a fire had been lit; here they’d sit around the fire gently cooking their bread over the hot charcoal while learning more about Stone Age diets - what a fantastic way to bring history to life, while also learning more about where food comes from and its ecological impacts.

Morgan PhillipsComment