When was the first time that you built a den? Or cooked on a campfire? Have you ever planted something, watched it grow and then eaten it? If you were a pupil at Copthill School, you would have done all of these things and more by the time you turned 11. Copthill School, an independent day school for 300 boys and girls aged 2–11, is situated on 350 acres of farmland and is run by its founding family. The principal, Jonathan Teesdale, grew up on the land and was one of the first pupils, so the school has strong community values.
As you would expect from someone that grew up on a farm, Jonathan is incredibly passionate about the outdoors and has integrated it successfully into the curriculum. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit Copthill, as for over a decade it has grown a blossoming Forest School and outdoor curriculum. In most independent schools this is a fairly new concept, so I was keen to hear how the Forest School has evolved over the years. Could outdoor learning rival the classroom?
“I once received a letter from a parent,” said Jonathan. “It explained that their child had been out all morning at the Forest School, making dream catchers, which linked with the work they were doing in English. They wanted me to explain why he was doing this when he had exams coming up. Surely he should be preparing for exams, not going out and playing in the woods? They did say he enjoyed himself though. So I wrote back and explained the importance of going outside and seeing the things we normally take for granted. But anyway, he did very well. He went on to be Head Boy at a large independent school along with excellent exam results, so it didn’t hold him back!”
I have a feeling that Jonathan has many more stories of a similar ilk, as I can imagine that some parents might prefer the familiarity of a classroom. However, during my tour of the school it soon became clear that being outside doesn’t stop the learning. Jonathan explained that every activity in the Forest School has a purpose, as he is conscious that the outdoors shouldn’t become a novelty.
“The great thing about the outdoors is that it’s a leveller for people. Take maths as an example. Some pupils might be brilliant at maths in the classroom but others could struggle. So, how about grabbing a piece of wood and asking the pupils to cut it up into 10 pieces that are 12cm long? This might be a challenge but once they’ve done it they know what 10 means and what 12cm looks like. It makes maths far more relevant than a textbook,” said Jonathan.
Although chopping wood makes a good maths lesson, it also provides a selection of other activities; as the wood can be used to make a fire and then cook food. Every pupil at Copthill School has the opportunity to learn these skills and they find it very rewarding.
“The children have healthy respect for fire as they know what they’re doing with it. They know it’s not just a thing to burn, it’s there to give them warmth and comfort, for making hot chocolate or to cook on. If they didn’t learn about these skills in the Forest School, they might not know that,” said Jonathan.
Indeed, by teaching children these skills from a young age it offers an opportunity for personal development. Food is an intrinsic part of school life at Copthill School as Jonathan and his team are keen to teach children the whole life cycle of food. The Brookwood Partnership, Copthill’s caterers, are a huge part of this education as they mirror the school’s values.
Brookwood started working with Copthill in 2004 and as part of their service, regularly encourage pupils to try new foods via tasting tables, educational initiatives and assemblies. Jonathan explained that the school was initially nervous about charging parents for lunches, so they didn’t make it compulsory. However, within one week of Brookwood cooking at the school, those with packed lunches had been converted, and now everyone enjoys the food on offer.
Brookwood have also embraced Copthill’s love of the outdoors as they grow vegetables in the school garden which can then be used within the kitchen. This is key to educating pupils about food and has been a big hit with the pupils.
I met two Year 6 pupils to understand what they liked best about the food at Copthill and they were instantly enthusiastic.
“I really like that the food varies from week to week,” said Evie. “We don’t have the same food all the time and if I see something on the menu I’ve never had before, I’ll try it.”
“Yes, but also, I like how if you don’t like a meal you always have the choice of the salad bar or jacket potato,” added Henry.
The pair then launched into a conversation about composting and minimising food waste, highlighting that Brookwood and Copthill’s mission to educate children about food was working.
“Our relationship is definitely a partnership,” explained Deborah Homshaw, Managing Director at Brookwood. “We’re all here for the children. I don’t think there’s anything better to do than work with children and food. We are currently promoting wellbeing at the school and have created ‘pots of happy’, which is the idea of happy food. We are slowly rolling out testing tables with this food. It reminds people that food is fun, as sometimes I think we forget that. We really want to spark an enthusiasm for food that lasts for life.”
“Brookwood have gone the extra mile from the word go,” added Jonathan. “Everyone is very passionate about what they do and they never turn down our ideas.”
This is definitely a school of ideas. For example, Copthill is planning to build a polytunnel so that a whole class can do gardening in the winter and grow more fruit and vegetables. Plus, Copthill’s passion for educating children about food extends beyond their 350 acres. Around five years ago, Jack Hunt School in Peterborough heard about the Forest School at Copthill and asked if their pupils could also experience this outdoor education. And so a partnership was born.
Copthill’s Forest School and outdoor opportunities are clearly going from strength to strength and with Brookwood’s help they are proving that learning shouldn’t be restricted to the indoors.
“You can find 100 reasons why you shouldn’t start teaching outdoors,” admitted Jonathan. “There’s health and safety or not enough time in the curriculum. Maybe you haven’t got the right staff in the right area. But if you have the belief that it is going to be good for the children, you can overcome those hurdles. If you have passionate teachers and good ideas, then you can do it. If there isn’t time in the curriculum you can combine some of the activities that you might do in the classroom with the outdoors. You will soon see the benefits. My biggest regret, after being here 24 years, is that I wish I had introduced the Forest School even earlier.”