Chickens are on the curriculum at a school in Northants, where enterprising pupils run a free range egg business

Year 5 and 6 children at Staverton Church of England Primary School in Northants have been running a free range egg business since 2003. The original purpose was to give the children some responsibility and for them to learn about where their food came from. We also wanted to keep animals but for them to be more than just pets that soon lost their novelty value.

In true Dragons’ Den style, to raise money for the house and hens the children “sold off” 20 per cent of the company as shares. Parents and governors who became shareholders were promised a percentage of 20 per cent of the eggs as a dividend on their shares, proportionate to the amount they purchased. And so our first eight hens arrived and a large run was built down the side of the school drive. The children organised themselves into teams responsible for sales, egg collection, feeding and mucking out. Every decision was agreed on majority vote with children voting with their heads down on their tables, not as some strange form of punishment, but so they couldn’t see how everyone else was voting so there was no peer pressure!

The company was originally named “Big Feathery Dudes” and later changed to “The Funky Free Rangers.” The children decided to only use organic feed after some debate about the ethical and financial implications.

Not long after we got going we were featured in the local paper and then regional television because very few schools were keeping hens seven years ago and, as far as we knew, none were running it as a business. A mathematics advisor from our local authority visited us and appreciated all the numeracy work the children were involved in through running the business, and she asked the children to make a presentation which she took to a European conference. As a result, a German education minister and experts from four other countries asked for a copy to show in their schools.Now other schools get in touch on a regular basis, especially after we featured in Country Smallholding magazine last year, to ask about setting up similar schemes.

The main stumbling block for teachers wanting to keep hens always appears to be health and safety. I wish we charged for copies of our risk assessment! There are all sorts of myths and, quite frankly, some absolute rubbish being spoken out there resulting in hens not being kept in schools because of the supposed dangers. Basically, where we keep our hens, people can avoid them if they have any allergies or phobias. Our children are taught the basic rules of hygiene and we make sure we follow Defra advice on diseases and selling eggs. And, so far, no child has been hospitalised by an angry hen, contracted bird ‘flu or had to be de-loused. And the hens haven’t suffered at the hands of the children either, or caught the mumps.

The other problem is who looks after the hens at weekends and during the holidays? We are incredibly lucky to have a chap called Mike Hutt who lives nearby and spends his retirement looking after the hens and our school grounds when the children aren’t about. Every school should have one!

The business started with hybrid hens, but since then we have bought an incubator and hatched various breeds. Now the children have a mixed flock of rare breeds, hybrids and a couple of ex-battery hens (the Re-Chargeables). The children learned about intensive farming methods in PSHE lessons and were keen to re-home some former battery birds. Of the rare breeds, at the moment we have Light Sussex, Araucanas for the green/blue eggs, a Buff Orpington, because it looks pretty, and a Cuckoo Maran for the mahogany eggs.

This year we have changed the set up of the business slightly. The older children now have their own ethical share portfolio run in conjunction with a local stockbrokers. We also have quite extensive garden areas for growing vegetables and at least once a term we cancel school dinners and classes cook for everyone, often using our own produce. For example, we have a Baked Potato Day in September with all classes making fillings for the potatoes, which were grown by the older children. Some of the children were more interested in these projects than the hens, so now The Funky Free Rangers is organised by a volunteer group of older children who work with the children in our reception class. Every playtime, two older children will walk past my office attached to a couple of four year olds to collect the eggs and fill egg boxes. The younger ones are learning to count and handle money; the older ones oversee the whole operation including phoning to arrange deliveries of layers’ pellets.

It is nice to be known as “the school with hens” although we do teach other subjects too! The children love having them on site and I would strongly recommend keeping then in schools. More importantly, so would the children.

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