Nightingale Community Academy in South West London is a school that knows the transformative power of a positive food culture. Under the leadership of school principal, Andre Bailey, Nightingale has put good, nutritious food prepared from scratch at the heart of the school community. The school even has its own three-acre farm rearing rare breed livestock and vegetables that form a key part of the lunchtime food offer.

Sponsored by Orchard Hill College and Academy Trust, Nightingale is a school for boys aged between 5 and 19 who are neuro-divergent meaning they have an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Bailey took over as head in 2016 following a failed Ofsted inspection which put the future of the school in jeopardy. He inherited a facility that had received very little investment in the buildings or infrastructure, including the farm. After consulting with colleagues, the decision was taken to retain the farm and make it a focal point of the school community, as well as the learning environment.

‘Tom’s Farm’ was originally established as a therapeutic resource to provide students with opportunities to learn about empathy while caring for animals. It was funded by the Tom AP Rhys Pryce Memorial Trust, set up following the tragic murder of 31-year old lawyer Tom in 2006.

Bailey credits the arrival of farm manager, Josh, who had previously worked with TV personality Jimmy Doherty, as a key moment in the evolution of the farm – and by extension the school. “It was his vision of the field-to-fork process that has driven what we have done here,” explains Bailey. “Ultimately the farm has ended up being a driver for a lot of the improvement we have delivered over time”.

The farm is now home to several hundred animals some of which are reared for meat while others play a purely therapeutic role. They include numerous breeds of sheep, Guernsey goats and Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, a rare traditional breed which was facing the threat of extinction just twenty years ago and of which Bailey says Nightingale is now one of the biggest breeders in the country.

Another key turning point was the Covid-19 pandemic. Nightingale’s incumbent catering contractor refused to serve hot food to the children at the start of the first lockdown citing fears for the safety of its staff. Since every child at Nightingale is considered vulnerable the school stayed open throughout the pandemic. Bailey took the decision to cancel the catering contract and contacted the charity Chefs in Schools having read a newspaper article about their work transforming school food and education. Looking back, he says working with the charity has removed a lot of the “organisational stress” from running the catering operation and given staff peace of mind that the food served is meeting national standards. “There’s also something about being part of a bigger whole, where you’ve got a community of people all of whom want high standards of food for young people,” Bailey adds.

A volunteer from Chefs in Schools initially took over the kitchen operation until Bailey was able to recruit a full time chef, James. Bailey says the arrival of James, who also happened to be a master butcher, “led to some high quality thinking about how we use the produce we had on the farm to feed our children”. He recalls James asking the school’s mechanics teacher to fix up a contraption which he used to roast a spring lamb over fire. The children “were mesmerised by the process”, says Bailey. “We ate it at lunchtime and it was absolutely fabulous.”

At this point Bailey and his team began considering how they could more closely link the school curriculum with the work going on at the farm and in the kitchen. Things have “developed organically over time” to the point where Bailey says “we now have a culture where the children are used to going down to the farm; they might go there for therapeutic reasons just to be with the animals but ultimately they understand where their food comes from and how it ended up on their plate”.

Many of the 130 pupils are involved in growing fruit and vegetables in the horticulture section of the farm and harvesting fresh produce that ends up in the kitchen and ultimately on their plates.

The current head chef is Sherri Dymond who boasts experience of working at leading London restaurants. Dymond says she was attracted both by the opportunity to nurture the health of future generations and the chance “to cook amazing things for these kids”. She aims to keep dishes as seasonal as possible, using different grains, vegetables and cuts of meat and exposing the children to as many ingredients as possible. “A lot of it is a real labour of love, but that’s what feeding people is,” she says, “it’s an act of love”.

A key part of the school’s philosophy is to reach a point where it is normal for the children to try lots of different foods. “Parents of children who are neuro-divergent often find it really difficult to change their eating habits,” explains Bailey. “We’re in a position to begin to get them trying different things by creating a culture where it’s okay to have a taste of everything on the menu and leave what you can’t eat.”

In keeping with the positive ethos around eating, the dining hall was redecorated in 2022 by London artist The Fandangoe Kid to create a vibrant, welcoming environment where students can enjoy their meals. Gone are the whitewashed walls and in their place are bright colours and soothing images. “It’s a much more comfortable space,” says Bailey. “It feels like a destination in its own right.”

Dymond says she gets particular satisfaction from preparing a vegetarian dish that proves a hit with the children. “The first time I ever gave them enchiladas it was full of beautiful grilled vegetables and loads of black beans folded through into these fabulous tortillas and with a lovely smoky sauce and cheesy béchamel,” she recalls.

Longer-term, she says the “real win” is in the children being able to identify a wide range of ingredients when they become young adults themselves. “Then they will be able to feed their friends, their families, their children, and share that knowledge.”

Nightingale’s focus on food is part of a wider programme of improvement in areas such as teaching, therapeutic input and learning culture. But Bailey insists “I don’t think we could do what we do if we didn’t have the good quality food because hungry boys do not learn; it’s that simple.”

Food, including breakfast, is free for all children – a decision Bailey took for a number of reasons including an ability to offset some of the cost by using food from the farm.

The majority of schools aren’t in a position to subsidise their food offer and Bailey believes they need help to change. “All the evidence is there” for the transformative potential of good quality school food, free at the point of service, he says, citing the example of Southwark Council which started giving all primary school children free meals a decade ago. “Their outcomes have exponentially improved and I know that my outcomes here, on a much more modest scale, have improved too. We’ve just as a society got to decide what’s important to spend money on,” he says. “I do think there is a really strong argument for saying that as children are young and developing we make sure they have good quality food and a good quality education and we will then get better outcomes and adults who are better prepared for the next stage of their lives.”

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