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The Daily Telegraph: Country Life Charms Inner City Teens

This article was published in the Daily Telegraph on January 14th 2010. To see the original article please click here


It is growing dark as Daniel and I walk along the path. "I’d be scared to be out at this time in London," he says. "I’d be frightened of being attacked." At that moment two tall youths wearing hoodies jump out of a hedge. Daniel screams. As, indeed, do I. The youths, who have now pulled back their hoods, start to – there is no other word for it – caper about the field. "It worked! You were really scared, weren’t you, Miss?"

I am spending the day with 16-year-old Daniel and six other pupils from Burlington Danes Academy, a west London comprehensive, on a farm in Bath. All are from deprived backgrounds. Some have been excluded from school several times. Most have never been in the countryside. And all have spent the past week feeding cows, lifting hay bales and going for long winter walks. They have all, according to the farm’s owner Jamie Feilden, "behaved beautifully".

They are here through the charity Jamie’s Farm. Started by Feilden, an ex-teacher, in 2006, it aims to give inner-city children the experience of rural life. The children, many of whom have been in gangs or in trouble with the police, stay for a week in the Feildens’ family home, sleeping in their bedrooms and eating at their great wooden table. "I want to give them a real taste of family and country life," Feilden says.

So idyllic is the farm it would be fairer to say it gives them a taste of Country Life: photogenic flowers ramble over Cotswold stone buildings, horses poke handsome heads over stable doors and, inside, a red Aga warms the kitchen.

Yet, according to Feilden, in the three years the charity has been going: "Not a single item has been lost, stolen or broken." As his mother, the languidly glamorous (and clearly very tolerant) Tish Feilden, says: "I think the beauty here helps them. They see the loveliness and they respond to it." Or as 16-year-old Daniel puts it: "I like it here. It smells all fresh."

From dawn to dusk the pupils follow an impossibly wholesome regime. Mobile phones, iPods and junk food are confiscated at the gate. The pupils rise early to feed and muck out the cows, pigs, chickens and horses, before eating a cooked breakfast (often consisting of the animals they care for). Then comes more farm work, lunch, more work, long walk, supper and bed.

They love it. "It’s great not having a phone," explains one. "I focus so much better." Many speak of how the diet has changed their mood ("I’m less jumpy, jumpy") and others of how much they like feeding the animals. Though all pupils unite on the evils of the afternoon walk. As one darkly warns me: "Don’t come. You’ll regret it."

The idea for the farm came when Feilden was working as a Teach First teacher in a "challenging" Croydon school. Most of the pupils had never been beyond the borough, let alone into the countryside. Feilden felt farming could help. "I thought I could solve some of the behavioural problems by giving pupils the opportunity for real physical achievement."

So the next time he went home, he returned with two lambs in the back of his car, "gaining some odd looks" as he drove through Brixton. He put the lambs into the playground. The results were instant. "The atmosphere changed," he says. "They gave the pupils something to do besides fighting. Lots turned up early to feed them."

Encouraged, Feilden took seven children back to the family farm that summer. The trip was a success and the next summer 21 pupils came. Now around 350 have passed through, with impressive results: 91 per cent of pupils have fewer behavioural incidents on their return to school and 83 per cent have a decreased truancy rate.

Certainly, during my visit, the behaviour of these "difficult" children is impeccable. Not only do they say, "Yes Miss, No Miss" to you, they all insist you go through doors first and not one of them ever swears. It is worth noting that when we are jumped on the walk, my language explores the full range of Anglo-Saxon, while Daniel contents himself with a quiet: "Oh, my days."

It is, of course, not a panacea: a troubled child will still be a troubled child. But, Feilden says, it is still worthwhile. "If all we achieve is showing them the beauty of the countryside, then I think we’ve a achieved lot.’"

The children would agree. As I leave Daniel comes up to me. "Miss," he says. "I forgot to say, but the farm is brilliant. You’ve got to put that in, Miss." Then he pauses. "No," he says. "Say it’s spectacular. That’s better."