St. Michael's Farm
St. Michael's is very much an inner-city primary school situated at the heart of Handsworth, the historic epicentre of the industrial revolution.
Within our urban school grounds there’s a small but thriving nurture farm. The St. Michael's farm is not what you would expect to see within the streets of Handsworth, 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, especially in relation to pupils' social, emotional and mental wellbeing.
During the course of the academic year, we work closely with community partners, as well as Southfields Farm, to provide our pupils with the opportunity to care for and nurture alpacas, goats, lambs, chickens and Bumble the Rabbit. The animals allow us to teach pupils the vital skills of empathy and care, in an environment that many are experiencing for the first time.
The St. Michael's farm provides pupils with the opportunity to discover the wonders of the natural world, as well as helping pupils to build a sense of self-worth and respect for themselves and others.
It’s an adventure, and our children 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.
The human-animal bond is strong, offering unconditional acceptance and support. Pygmy goats are particularly popular with our children, especially Houdini-like escape artist, Buster the Goat. The pygmy goats are a key 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.
Life can sometimes be tough. The farm and animals can offer a much needed distraction from the expectations of school and the demands of life. It provides pupils with the guaranteed opportunity to be successful and relieves any pressures they feel at that time.
If nothing else, it offers our children a taste of something very different to traditional Handsworth!
On 6 November 2023, the BBC published an online article about the St. Michael's farm:
A primary school in Birmingham has introduced a small farm to inspire pupils and bring the community together. The BBC went to see the impact the animals have had.
"There were lots of interesting questions from the children when we first got the alpacas, such as why have we got camels at school?
"When we first got Buster the goat they asked why I had brought my dog to work?"
Philip Hynan became head teacher of St Michael's C of E Primary School in Handsworth, Birmingham, in September 2021, its fourth boss in two years.
The school, in one of Birmingham's most deprived wards, lies just off the bustling, traffic-laden Soho Road and is perhaps not a place you would expect to find a small-holding.
Mr Hynan's priority was to raise learning standards. One of the ways he wanted to do that was to engage with the community - and so the school opened a farm.
"We felt that in order to raise standards in teaching and learning we needed to get everybody on side," he said.
"The farm has won us a lot of fans - we see lots of people passing by, looking through the fence and taking photos."
The idea came from his childhood. Although he grew up in Birmingham, he and his sister would spend summer holidays at a relative's farm in southern Ireland.
"The farm gives the children responsibility, they have jobs and tasks they have to complete on a daily basis plus it gives them a need to think about others," he said.
Pupils arrive early to feed the alpacas, make sure the goats have not escaped and check on the chickens.
In the spring, they get to hand rear and bottle feed lambs rejected by their mothers.
The goats are firm favourites, mainly because they keep escaping. Looking after the animals was their favourite thing about school, the children said.
"They're cute and I just like being around them," one said.
Charitable groups such as Newbigin Community Trust, Southfields Farm and North Edgbaston Sports Club loan the animals to the school for extended periods.
Not all the farm work is done by the children, though. Cleaning the enclosures and scooping up the poop is a weekly task for the headteacher.
But it is not all about the farm. Nearby residents have transformed part of a disused playground into an allotment.
Vegetables, including corn, cabbage, onions, carrots and beetroot are grown, and a community pantry has sprung up, where families can take some of the produce home.
School governor Shuranjeet Singh helped out with the allotment.
He said he contacted the school and asked how the community could support it.
"The school's vision was so important for me because it recognised the well being of the pupils rested on the wellbeing for families and the wellbeing of the community," he said.
Volunteers cleared out the space, family members built planters and the allotment was developed by school and community.
Volunteers, including members of Soho Road Bid, mental health support group Taraki, the Grimmit Trust and Humanify, now give up about half a day to week to volunteer as well as help with funding.
"For the children it's been about seeing things grow and recognising where things come from," said Mr Singh.
"Its been a learning experience for me too, I didn't realise carrots didn't grow slightly out of the ground."
Next on the list of things to do at the school is complete work on creating a community hub, a place for families and for other community groups to gather on the school grounds.
But what do the children want to see?
"They've asked for a horse and for a cow. I'm not sure we've got enough land, enough grass," Mr Hynan said.
"But one day, maybe."