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    Goats in Hats - teaching 'outside the box'

    I've been following the escapades of the Varndean goats with great interest and amusement and I've fallen in love with these hat-wearing cuties. Could this be the way forward for schools to get their pupils out of the classroom and engaging in learning that is 'outside of the box'?

    If you haven't heard about the goats (where have you been?), it's a great story that has attracted lots of media interest. Varndean School, near Brighton, has acquired five pygmy goats, named Alan, Ethel, Maya, Bertrand and William. The staff and pupils are able to spend their lunchtimes with the goats at Goat Club, where they can learn how to care for and feed them and take them for walks around the grounds. The school says that they are 'firm believers in the power of animal therapy in supporting students in stressful times, and the power of nature is a proven tool in the practice of mindfulness and wellbeing'.

    Hooray! It takes a brave and forward-thinking school to embark on a project like this, since it involves a great deal of time, team-work and commitment. The staff at Varndean School clearly feel that the benefits far outweigh the potential problems and I salute them for this. One of their main objectives is to use the goats to improve behaviour; pupils who are demonstrating poor behaviour are given time with the goats to diffuse difficult situations, and they say that incidents of poor behaviour have dropped by 29% compared to the same period last year. 

    You only need to look at the Varndean goats Twitter feed to see how much fun the children are having with them. I've seen photos and videos of pupils caring for and playing with the goats and enjoying some real 'goaty love' and I'm so pleased to see the pupils spending time outdoors in all weathers, learning in real-life contexts. The links to PSHE and citizenship are clear, but having animals in school surely must be beneficial in many other ways too. I can imagine a great deal of maths going on when food is being ordered, prepared and distributed. The animals could be weighed and measured regularly in 'health checks' and the children could do research about how to keep the animals healthy. There would be endless writing opportunities - given the media interest in the Varndean goats, I think the children could become journalists themselves and write their own press releases and produce fantastic live news reports! The animals could inspire poetry, story writing and oral story-telling, even song writing and music composition. In DT the children could design and make shelters, food storage containers and toys and in history and geography they could find out about where the animals come from and which countries they can be found. The possibilities are endless - it's just a matter of linking them to the curriculum objectives.

    There is one other important benefit to having animals in school - it opens up great opportunities for community links. I can imagine nursery/pre-school groups and residents of local care homes coming along to the school to visit the animals, and other local schools getting involved too. A school which cares for animals sends a message out into the community: we are a caring, loving school with big ideas and a positive outlook. Can't be bad, can it?

    if your school has been inspired by Varndean's 'goaty love', but you don't know where to start, why not contact your local farm, vet or pet store for some advice? Or arrange a trip out to do some research - lots of local farms welcome visits from schools and vets are often pleased to talk to pupils about animal health and care. And if you are a vet or a farmer and would like to connect with schools in your area, join the School Visits Network today at www.schoolvisitsnetwork.org/membership.


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