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Mucking in: Meet the teacher who left a city classroom to run an educational farm
Toby Meanwell, education manager at Jamie's Farm near Hereford (Credit: Andrew Fox/Telegraph)
“Look at all this,” says Toby Meanwell, gesturing across the sun-drenched hills surrounding Lower Wernddu Farm in Herefordshire. “Who wouldn’t want to spend time here?”
Despite his Land Rover and battered wellies, Meanwell is no ordinary farmer. In 2011, he was living in a one-bedroom flat in Holloway, North London, working as a science teacher at nearby St. George’s in Maida Vale. When the school organised a trip to Jamie’s Farm, a charity working with schools all over the country to offer short, rural residential stays for groups of vulnerable, inner city teenagers, Meanwell jumped at the chance to volunteer. A Head of Year who had grown up messing around in the Oxfordshire countryside, he immediately fell in love with the place.
“I was amazed at what difference just a week was making to these kids. They were coming back and acting as if something had finally clicked,” he says. “It was just a case of showing them something else, breaking the monotony of the classroom or whatever’s going on at home.”
Pupils from a school in Bradford play with the spring lambs Credit: Andrew Fox/Telegraph)
The 105-acre Herefordshire site is the second ‘Jamie’s Farm’ – the first is in Wiltshire, and named after its founder, Jamie Feilden. They seek to transform pupils’ self-esteem and behavioural issues simply by changing their learning environment and giving them a hearty taste of agricultural life.
It was just a case of showing them something else, breaking the monotony of the classroom or whatever’s going on at homeJamie Meanwell
Abandoning the familiarity of the classroom may prove tricky for some, but it works: the charity’s two sites now host around 1,000 11-15 year olds annually, with each taking about a dozen pupils per week. The transformative effect is stark. Of the visiting children deemed by their teachers to be ‘at risk of exclusion’ when they arrive at the farm, a staggering 82 per cent aren’t in that category six weeks later – testament not only to the farms themselves, but the charity’s follow-up visits in the weeks and months after.
At Lower Wernddu, Meanwell leads a team of eight young staff, among them specialists in farming and cooking. Then there’s the animals, including 30 pedigree Hereford cattle, around 150 rapidly-multiplying sheep, one boar, three sows with piglets, three dogs, and some goats.
The team includes Meanwell’s wife, Katie, also a former teacher at St George’s, who works as therapeutic coordinator, speaking to the children one-on-one every day. Mood is important. After breakfast, every morning staff ask them to ‘check in’ – meaning call out a number between one and 10 to represent how they’re feeling.
Toby Meanwell speaks to a pupil on the farm (Credit: Andrew Fox/Telegraph)
Officially titled ‘Education Manager’, an average day for Meanwell, 39, could include a morning safely delivering lambs with a handful of grossed-out city children, the afternoon building a hut with another lot, and the evening chipping in with preparing a meal for 20 in the farmhouse.
“My role is to oversee it all, but that means getting stuck in,” he says, as we trudge around the site on an unseasonably balmy Wednesday.
Three years ago, a generous Comic Relief grant allowed Feilden to purchase a second site in Herefordshire. Having developed a friendship with Meanwell during his volunteer stints during both summer and term-time, Feilden asked him to lead the new project, and move to a flat on-site.
“There were reservations. All our friends were in London and we loved teaching,” Meanwell says. “But it seemed like a no-brainer – even if we’d have a lot to learn.”
Pupils help to groom and muck out the horses on the farm (Credit: Andrew Fox/Telegraph)
Before arriving on a Jamie’s Farm, the pupils are asked to sign a contract: no smoking, no chewing gum, no sugary food or drink and no TV. Smartphones are to be handed in on day one.
“Some of them really lose it over the smartphones,” Meanwell says. “They’ll also arrive hyperactive, unable to concentrate on anything, then by the end of the second day the sugar has rushed out of them and they’re completely fine.”
Most pupils have also never seen the countryside. Meanwell recalls one young Londoner, who, upon holding a lamb for the first time, noted that it felt oddly similar to her wool jumper
Many follow the same behavioural pattern, which they call ‘forming, storming, norming’: after arriving, they try to make sense of the new environment. Then they try to test its boundaries. Come the end of the week, they’re used to it, and start to make the most of the opportunity.
“We just let them kick off and get it out of their systems. It’s two miles to the nearest village. They soon realise there’s nowhere to go and just come back.”
Although there’s plenty of rolling down hills and splashing in puddles, Meanwell notes that every task on the farm is needed, be it building sheds or planting vegetables. On our wander, a group of 15-year-olds from a school in Bradford were helping count lambs, clutching the miniscule balls of fluff like toys, while others were sawing and drilling crates together for the goats play on.
“A lot of the pupils here never felt what it’s like to really achieve something, so we have them build things they can come back and visit, or cook for the group, then make sure everyone knows how they helped.”
Most have also never seen the countryside. Meanwell recalls one young Londoner, who, upon holding a lamb for the first time, noted that it felt oddly similar to her jumper.
“She had no idea they were made of the same thing,” Meanwell laughs. “But we show them how things work. Want a hot shower? Chop some wood for the boiler. Milk for your cereal? Off to the cow shed.”
Mohaid Ali, a shy 15-year-old who’s been here with his school group for the last three days, delivered a lamb on his very first morning. “It was so warm and slimy, but really cute,” he says. “I had never been to a farm and didn’t know lambing was a thing. I thought the sheep did it themselves.”
Ali admits the sugar and phone bans were difficult at first, but Lower Wernddu has grown on him. “I didn’t really want to come, but my dad said I might learn something new, and he was right. It’s been hard work sometimes but I really like it.”
As it stands, Meanwell’s salary is paid for by the grant from Comic Relief, who are committed for three years. Relying on outside investment, high profile associations like Comic Relief and the patronage of the Duchess of Cornwall are essential in attracting investors and donations.
Rounding up the newborns with farm manager (Credit: Andrew Fox/Telegraph)
Vocational qualifications such apprenticeships and T-Levels, as promoted by the Chancellor in his Spring Budget, are a future possibility.
“We’d love to start some sort of qualification here,” Meanwell says. “We can see that alternatives [to formal education] are desperately needed.”
The next two years will see the opening of two more Jamie’s Farms, in Monmouthshire and Sussex. With those, the charity hopes to help 1800 troubled kids every year. For Meanwell, that growth, and that impact, is why he can’t imagine stopping.
“I’d never leave the countryside now. Everyone on the team is doing amazing, vital work. I hope we’re set, I really do.”