Growing together

Young people from Beacon High stood infront of the plant nursery

Beacon High School has been working with Octopus Community Network to enable students with special educational needs to reap the mental and physical health benefits of gardening, while building horticultural skills. We pop down to visit a group of year eight students at one of their regular gardening sessions at the Octopus Community Plant Nursery to find out more

Beacon High School, a secondary school located in Tufnell Park, offers weekly gardening sessions at the school for years seven to nine and at the Octopus Community Plant Nursery for year eight. The school also offers courses in practical horticulture skills for years 10 and 11, which are designed to be more accessible for students with additional needs. This, in turn, allows the students to do further training in the form of a Level 1 or Level 2 Horticulture Course, or to work towards professional employment, for example by taking up an apprenticeship with Islington Council’s parks team when these are available.

“The students who are involved in this project have additional learning, social, or emotional needs, and face a lot of challenges,” says Jonathan Deane, a teacher in the special educational needs department of the school. “Some of them are on the autistic spectrum and have found school difficult but coming here, they feel like they are participating in something positive and constructive, and they always look forward to the next session.”

The project is all about supporting students to build their self-confidence, form social connections, and acquire a sense of responsibility. “The students learn to work as a team and to follow through on a task,” adds Fran Smith from the Octopus Community Network charity, who has played a leading role in setting up the partnership and managing the sessions.

Gardening is also a very mindful exercise, which can help students transform their behaviour. Sidney is in year eight and has attended weekly sessions at the plant nursery for two years. His regular tasks include weeding, watering, sweeping and growing plants such as cucumbers, runner beans and garlic. “I’m autistic and two years ago I was always running around, not listening to anyone,” he says. “Now, I’ve calmed down. It’s good to have a way to release your anger and gardening is something that can help you do that.” Teighan, another year eight student, also finds relief in gardening – “I like it because it’s calming” – while Sidney appreciates that it allows him to “help Mother Nature”.

Fostering a connection with nature is another important aspect of the project. “Part of the project is about engaging the students with environmental issues and climate change and helping them see themselves as agents of change who have a positive impact on the local community in which they are growing up,” Jonathan continues. Yet, among all of these lessons, fun is also a key part of the curriculum. “The students are really having fun and seeing their enthusiasm is lovely. Last week they sowed some beans and you can already see the first signs of them, which has been exciting for them,” adds Caroline Humphries from Octopus Community Network.

The partnership between the charity and the school is based on a flexible approach, with regular reviews of the project and its future direction. “We’re very fortunate to have such a good partnership with Beacon High School,” says Fran. “Every few months we review our work together and what we want to do next. We adapt it to any given group and what’s right for them at that time. Working with a committed and enthusiastic teacher who takes a creative approach has been really helpful for that.”

This is a sentiment echoed equally by Jonathan Deane: “We are very thankful for the partnership with Octopus. Coming here, you see our students smile, laugh, and talk the way you don’t always see them at school. They are making new friends and developing their social skills. The project has a real impact on them in so many ways – physically, mentally and socially.”

Local gardening competition Islington in Bloom is still open for submissions until Monday 4 July – find out more and enter.

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