How a farm in Sheffield is helping excluded children get their lives back on track

Thousands of schoolchildren visit Whirlow Hall Farm Trust each year
Thousands of schoolchildren visit Whirlow Hall Farm Trust each year
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With rising numbers of children being excluded from school, the role of organisations like Whirlow Hall Farm Trust in Sheffield has never been more crucial.

The working farm on the city's edge helps youngsters who have struggled to adapt to a normal classroom environment ignite their passion for learning by giving them the chance to do something they love.

John Gray with goats at the farm

John Gray with goats at the farm

More than 100 pupils were expelled and there were over 6,700 suspensions at schools across Sheffield during 2015/16, The Star recently revealed, and the trust seeks to ensure those troubled children do not miss out on an education altogether.

On first impression, this could be any farm. Goats gently butt one another as pigs and sheep look lazily on and the heady aroma of hay and manure wafts over the 140 acres of fields and barns.

It's unlike any classroom I've seen, but, as the trust's chief executive Ben Davies explains, that's entirely the point.

Children who have been permanently excluded or are at risk of expulsion are referred to the farm if they have expressed an interest in animals. There are alternative placements around the city for children with an artistic bent or other leanings.

"It's about finding something they're interested in. If you do that you can engage them in learning and work on developing the soft skills they need to be in the classroom," says Ben.

Children are excluded for numerous reasons, from assaulting staff or bullying other pupils to vandalising school property or being caught with alcohol and drugs.

But John Gray, the trust's head of education, says 'these are not bad kids but the product of their environment'.

The heart-wrenching stories behind their misbehaviour include bereavements, parents who are in and out of prison, sexual exploitation and drug and alcohol abuse.

"If you don't help them, they will become a problem to themselves and their families, and probably a problem to their communities and ultimately the city as a whole," says John.

"Where some people see problems, we see potential."

The trust works closely with each child who is referred, and with their schools and families, to identify the root of their problems and work out how best to unlock that potential.

That usually involves a combination of outdoor activities and indoor learning to help them engage and acclimatise to the classroom so they can resume their mainstream education.

Ben recalls how on his first day at the trust he met a couple of boys and had a detailed discussion about engineering with them.

"At first I couldn't understand why they needed to be here, but I was told that left alone in the classroom they would be fighting within 10 minutes," he says.

"There was a dry stone wall which had been knocked down by a tractor, so we asked if they could rebuild that and they did an amazing job, which everyone commented on.

"They went from being kicked out of school to learning how to learn, to doing something that was really valued."

What may seem like a relatively trivial breakthrough can be life-changing for children who have until this point struggled to build relationships or take constructive criticism.

In the trust's vernacular, it attempts to turn children from 'protesters', who feel like prisoners in a learning environment and want everyone to know they're not happy, to 'participants', who are happy to be there and play an active role.

The need for intervention is greater than ever before, claims Ben, as increasing numbers of children both in Sheffield and across the country face exclusion.

Fuelling that rise, he says, are a reduction in the number of classroom assistants available to help teachers cope with disruptive pupils, coupled with greater pressures on children, from the steady stream of exams to abuse via social media.

That's one reason the trust, which also runs visits for hundreds of schoolchildren from across the city, has switched its focus from what Ben calls 'life-enhancing' activities like that to 'life-changing' ones like its work with excluded children aged from six to 16.

Last year, the farm provided 10,000 'child days', around 70 per cent of which consisted of school visits with the remainder made up of activities with excluded children or young people with special educational needs who need help to develop life skills.

When it comes to excluded children, who typically spend one day a week at the farm over the course of 12 weeks, the numbers are relatively small. Last year, it worked with 15 children who were at risk of expulsion and 40 who had already been permanently excluded.

But the impact is hard to over-emphasise, with none of the 15 children in the first category going on to be excluded, despite the very real risk.

The true value of their time at the farm may only be recognised years down the line, when those youngsters it helped remain in mainstream education gain qualifications, find work and make a valuable contribution to society.

The trust, where archaeological finds suggest the land has been cultivated since the stone age, must raise around £1 million a year to continue its work, with the help of 150 regular volunteers and thousands of supporters who attend the many events it hosts.

It was established in 1979 by Alan Aikin who was evacuated to a farm during the Second World War and loved his time in the countryside so much he wanted other inner-city children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enjoy the experiences he had.

Nearly 40 years later, it continues to make a huge difference to children who without the farm's support could easily end up falling through the gaps.

* For more about the trust and to donate, visit or call the fundraising department on 0114 2352 678.