This pioneering Derbyshire farm is transforming young lives

Goats and chickens and pigs, oh my! Welcome to Turner Farm...

A spot of fresh air can work wonders. Newcomers to Turner Farm might find the sights, sounds and smells a little disconcerting at first – pigs jostling at a trough can make quite a racket – but offering this change in perspective is exactly what the place is designed to do.

The working farm in Swanwick, Derbyshire, is home to an innovative educational project that offers struggling schoolkids the chance to learn new things in the great outdoors, among all the pigs, goats, rabbits, ducks and geese.

Visionary philanthropist Elizabeth Turner established an educational trust here back in 1740, leaving her farm buildings and 48 acres of land to provide education for poor children in the area. Although much later the place fell into a long decline, a 2009 merger with charity Valley CiDS (Christians Involved in Developing Society) has seen the place revitalised as the Turner Farm Project.

Groups of 11- to 16-year-olds, who are disconnected from mainstream education for a variety of reasons – family problems, bullying, poor mental health or special educational needs – are invited here to kick-start their education. They learn horticulture, tree planting and animal care. Activities such as the weighing out of food reinforces some of the indoor learning that goes on at the site, all part of ASDAN-accredited courses and modular qualifications for Key Stage 3 and 4.

Porklife! Valley CiDS’ CEO Dorothy Whitaker and Jonathan Brook, director of ethos, values and mission, at Turner Farm.

“These are young people who are just not finding life easy, not fitting in at school for one reason or another, who find it really valuable to get out of the everyday classroom routine,” explains Valley CiDS’ Jonathan Brook. “They find it really valuable to come here and clear their mind. It helps them become ready to learn in a new way.”

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Brook, Valley CiDS’ director of ethos, values and mission, is born and bred in Derbyshire. Although the Peak District part of the county is renowned for its majestic scenery, many of the small towns north of Derby have suffered badly from economic neglect.

These are young people who are just not finding life easy, and who find it really valuable to get out of the everyday classroom routine

“I’ve been a vicar in some of the most forgotten parts of Derbyshire, areas hit by the closure of industry over the years and all the impacts of high unemployment,” Brook says. “Men with hands like shovels told to go try and find work in supermarkets – that’s been a difficult adjustment for many families. There is quite a lot of poverty in the region.”

Deprivation and child poverty levels remain stubbornly high – above the national average – across many of the villages and small towns of north and east Derbyshire. Indeed, great swathes of rural Britain have failed to see the benefits of the economic ‘recovery’ experienced by London and other big cities in the years since the banking crisis.

It’s what makes the innovative work of the organisations trying to address both the causes and symptoms of poverty so vital. The Valley CiDS vision – initially funded from a single charity shop set up in 2000 by CEO Dorothy Whitaker – is aimed at raising the aspirations and releasing the potential of all children and young people in the area, whatever their circumstances.

The Christian organisation now runs a 39-place nursery, breakfast clubs in five different schools, after-school clubs in 11 schools, as well as four youth centres for teenagers and young people in their early 20s. “I know the scope of what we do is quite broad,” says Brook. “But I always think we could take on double or triple this amount of work, simply because there is such a great need out there.”

Brook says teachers at the schools where the breakfast clubs are running have noticed more switched-on children, and many parents now depend upon the wraparound childcare made available by the charity’s after-school clubs. “We’ve had a lot of great support,” says Brook. “People appreciate what we’re trying to do.”

I always think we could take on double or triple this amount of work, simply because there is such a great need out there

For teenagers in Derbyshire, Valley CiDS’ Blend Youth Project’s centres are somewhere to hang out, play pool and video games, and use the computers – but they also offer opportunities to engage in music, art and cookery workshops, and act as places for advice and guidance.

“It’s really important that young people experience a sense of belonging and feel part of their community because feeling socially excluded and disenfranchised can often be the trigger for other kinds of negative, risk-taking behaviours,” says Ian Tannahill, Valley CiDS’ director of young people’s services.

“We know that young people face a lot of challenges when it comes to trying to figure out life and making decisions over education and employment, so we’re there to support them,” says Tannahill. “They can experience low aspirations, so I think it’s important to offer support and opportunities to raise those aspirations, to broaden their horizons and help connect them to who they can be and what they can be part of in the wider world.”

Valley CiDS are finding new ways to support education and family life in a disadvantaged community

Impressed by the Valley CiDS’ ambitions, Big Issue Invest – The Big Issue Group’s social investment arm – is helping finance the red-evelopment of Turner Farm. The charity plans to expand the site, so it can offer an even wider range of alternative education provision.

“We’ve found Valley CiDS to be a hugely impactful organisation,” says Natalia Fernandez, investment manager at Big Issue Invest. “They are finding new ways to support education and family life in a disadvantaged community, and are creating fantastic opportunities for young people.”

More than 250 years after Elizabeth Turner established a new way of supporting children’s development, the legacy lives on. “The original 18th-century vision for Turner Farm was to help every young person reach their full potential,” says Jonathan Brook. “We like to think we’re trying to achieve that in all that we do in the 21st century.”

RURAL POVERTY: HOW IT ALL STACKS UP

  • 18% of households in rural England live in poverty
  • 14% in rural Scotland live in poverty
  • At least 20% of people in seven of the nine rural local authorities in Wales live in poverty
  • Cost of living in a rural area is 10-20% higher than cities – basics like travel and food cost more
  • People in rural areas need to earn between £1,200 and £4,200 a year more than those in urban areas to meet minimum living standards

valleyCiDs.co.uk; bigissueinvest.com