Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reaching for the Skies

I had come to see a rare phenomenon – a roof garden in a secondary school – and was bowled away on arrival by the flowers and plants which adorned the main corridor – the colours as bright and diverse as the flags which fluttered above.

Fewer than 9% of the schools nationally involved in the RHS Campaign for School Gardening are secondary schools. It seems that gardening in primary schools has captured the imagination – indeed there are plenty of them opening their doors for Open Garden Squares Weekend on June 14th and 15th, but secondary schools lag behind them significantly. Maybe the constraints of the national curriculum are taking their toll on horticulture in schools, but Oaklands School, in the heart of Tower Hamlets, is leading the way and showing that gardening and horticulture skills can be successfully incorporated into a school’s learning objectives, alongside the massive benefits which having a garden brings. Even Ofsted inspectors agree. Students have produced their own flowers, fruit and vegetables, applied what they have learnt to other subjects, such as food technology, design, science, art and ICT, and broadened the skills learned in the process into other work-related skills, such as events management, marketing and enterprise.

The whole school got involved in this roof garden project – including the Head of PE rushing out to find a good source of light polystyrene from Billingsgate market for use as drainage in the raised beds, and the discovery that the best window sills in the school for germinating seeds were in the Food Technology Department. 70% of students at Oaklands don’t have a garden at home. But an after-school gardening club has now been established and there were two keen, stalwart, student gardeners, Nicholas and Jason, and the Assistant Head, Janis Fuller, there to meet me and show me around after school had ended for the day. A year ago, the garden they and their fellow Year 7 pupils created on the new roof of the school’s extension building opened for the first time for the Open Garden Squares Weekend. They worked against time and with no formal funding to get the garden ready.

As in all good gardens, there had to be gardeners behind the scenes to champion such a venture and keep it on track. In this case they were a community gardener, Catherine Tidnam, Brian Gaffney, the Head of Year 7, and the designer, Julia Minnear from the Women’s Environmental Network. The children and the garden will grow together and they aim to document, over the school life of the Year 7 students, their growth and development, as well as that of the garden. The Zander Court Community Garden Club helped throughout, and Kiri Tunks turned the activities into learning competencies, with the support of all the staff involved.

Before any seeds were sown, the students conducted some pretty impressive research, including visiting a supermarket growing food for sale on its roof, and the famous Kensington Roof Garden. An international expert on roof gardens (Karla Dakin), who was in London to talk at the Garden Museum, was persuaded to come and visit and trees were donated by other international partners. Sourcing of products was kept local wherever possible; so the compost came from the Tower Hamlets Cemetery, builder’s merchants donated scaffold planks and wood came from the Leeside Wood Recycling Centre. Corporate volunteers from BUPA helped them turn the wood into vegetable planters. Now these planters are an innovative and striking home to herbs and vegetables – with bright stencils on the sides of the tubs and white wooden rabbits providing a quirky and amusing backdrop behind the fences and mesh surrounding the garden.

Herbs now tumble out of a disused filing cabinet – perhaps a symbol of planting and growth taking pride of place over paperwork.

The garden is open to its school community all year round, but the school chose to open it last year at the Open Garden Squares Weekend. This year the plants will be more mature and we hope that the wider community in London will enjoy it again. Last year there were over 300 visitors who relished delicious quiches and strawberry crush smoothies made from the garden produce, admired the vegetable garden, and sat in the quiet contemplation garden which adjoins it.

Further information on visiting Oaklands School Roof Garden »