President Karin introduced Liz Jakeman who spent 25 years teaching Special Needs pupils in Hertfordshire. She was raised in Dorset, in Piddle Trenthyde, on a mixed farm and decided to train as a PE teacher. She had a job waiting for her at Hatfield School when she left college but needed something to do until she began teaching in September so went to work at a hospital school in Newark, working with the least able pupils, and loved the job. Liz went to Hatfield School, where she stayed for 2 years and one term, when the opportunity to teach in the farm unit, at Brandles school in Baldock, for pupils with moderate learning difficulties arose.
The council owned farm which was next door to the school, had a farmyard, greenhouse, workshop for tool making, a reprographics area and an allotment and an additional 20 acres of land at Weston, rented very cheaply. Liz worked with the core students and visiting groups, ‘pupils’ ranging from 5 to 65 years of age, all of whom had learning difficulties, many with physical difficulties too. The adult ‘pupils’ came from a home which was next door to the farm, and were able to wander in and out every day. They all helped with the farm and the allotment, weighing and mixing feed stuff for the animals, feeding them, helping with the ‘gardening’ side of the work, and looking after 10 cows, sheep, pigs, ponies, chickens, turkeys etc, and a dog. There was a real sense of community. They sold the produce from the farm and allotments, helped the Countryside Management service with hedge planting, and cleaned two local churches.
Liz insisted on good behaviour towards the teachers and each other, and many of the pupils blossomed, becoming adept at problem-solving, taking responsibility, building their self-esteem, and their general social development. Liz loved to see how the children responded to the animals, communicating with them in ways they found impossible with people, and the animals helped to diffuse many difficult situations for the children. They were very patient with the pupils, tolerating their hugs, tugs, squeezes, and their sadnesses and tears, freeing them to speak and express their feelings, often for the first time.
The farm was closed by the LEA, on the grounds of funding and curriculum issues. It was very expensive to run the farm, and the LEA wanted the children to use computers and to follow the National Curriculum.
Liz found it heartbreaking to get rid of the livestock and close the farm. It had given much happiness to so many people. But whilst Liz was sad to see it go, she felt very lucky and privileged to have spent 25 year in a job that was truly ‘made’ just for her.
Questions to Liz included;
– what happened to the children; they all went to North Herts College.
– what happened to the older people; they were dealt with through the Care in the Community programme.
– the issue of Health and Safety was raised and whether there had been accidents; nowadays there would be great concern about it, but the fact was that there were no major accidents.
– had the children been to other schools before they were referred to Brandles Close; they had, but had not been able to cope. Most of them were classified MLD, but today most of them would be classified as SLD. The ability range at the unit increased during the 25 years that Liz was there, and many had physical difficulties as well.
Anne Miles thanked Liz for her talk, and recognized herself that special relationship that exists between children and animals.