Year of the Varndean Goat!

Hilary Goldsmith

Hilary Goldsmith is the director of Finance & Operations at Varndean School. She joined the school in January 2016 and, as a passionate believer in animal therapy, quickly saw an opportunity to combine this with the school’s existing pastoral provision. “Varndean is a unique place where we embrace opportunities to innovate and re-think the status quo. Bringing animals to Varndean has tapped into the rich seam of nurture, wellbeing and care on which the school rightly prides itself.”

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It was just over a year ago that Innovate My School published an article about a school in Brighton that had brought in some goats to support their pastoral provision. That was us. Two weeks after Innovate My School made us famous, we were getting up at 4am for our first live TV appearance, on Good Morning Britain, after the TES ran a story on us which was picked up by the national media. Since then it's all gone a bit bonkers, and our hairy resources are now superstars in their own right.

Ethel has appeared on ITV's Teach My Pet To Do That, Alan had his own Agony Goat slot on Wandsworth Radio, and the goats of Varndean School have forced their way into the hearts of the educational establishment. It's been a whirlwind year, but there have been some amazing highlights...

The goats getting put in their place by HM chief inspector of education, Amanda Spielman, on Twitter.

Being included in the Innovate My School Guide 2017/18.

Sir Steve Lancashire opening the Birmingham 2017 Academies Show wearing his 'I Love Varndean Goats' badge.

Getting a special mention in Paul Dix's bestselling book, When the Adults Change, Everything Changes.

Being named in the TES 10 Most Influential Figures in Education 2017 (and beating Ms Spielman, by the way!).

And a whole host of others. The media attention and the social media success has been enormous fun, and we've had such amazing opportunities for our students to experience: being on live TV, hearing themselves on radio interviews and podcasts, being ambassadors for their school, and raising thousands of pounds for charity. But the real, important stuff has been happening out of the spotlight, within the walls of Varndean School…

Goat Club has had a huge impact on our learners. Over 100 students are signed up, and they turn up every day, queueing to get out there, to care for the goats, to escape from the bustle of school life and to spend a tranquil half-hour being outdoors, being children, and learning by being outdoors. They come along, and they join in. No one is on their own, and everyone is welcome. Our student goat leaders keep an eye out for anyone new who looks lost or lonely. They gently give them tasks to do, pairing them up with each other and working alongside them to show them the jobs that need doing, so they can feel part of things.

Being a goat leader is a big deal! Goat clubbers with at least a year's committed experience are able to apply to become a goat leader at the start of each year. This is done by submitting a letter of application and attending an interview - proper serious stuff. Goat leaders are responsible for feeding and checking the goats and rabbits each morning; for supervising Goat Club at lunchtime; organising trips; alpaca visits and fundraising activities; for meeting and greeting visitors; arranging publicity; managing the Varndean Goats Instagram account and, generally, being ambassadors for their school. There are also rabbit rangers, who are experts in rabbit handling and rabbit care, and who operate on a daily rota system.

It's a student leadership scheme that rewards commitment, skill and compassion and is open to students of all ages and abilities. Students can also earn their Goat Badge through a number of different means - sometimes physical hard work, sometimes artistic creations, sometimes by integrating and developing strong bonds with the goats and showing great kindness. Whatever their talent is, we will recognise and reward it. In February we started a student-led reward scheme where goat leaders can recognise the hard work of goat clubbers by awarding a sticker each day. When a student earns 10 stickers they earn their Goat Star - a gold star pin badge. We're absolutely certain that the Goat Stars are going to be very highly coveted indeed.

There is also more discreet attachment, learning support and pastoral work that happens out of the public eye, where students work in small groups or one-to-one with adults on animal therapy activities specific to their needs. We don't ever really talk about that stuff. It's private, but it happens, and it's had a real and tangible impact on student lives and outcomes.

So how on earth are we going to top our first year? Well, we've already had goats and alpacas appearing in the school production of My Fair Lady, we're planning the 2018 Goat Race for Sport Relief, and who knows what other adventures we might have? But you can be absolutely sure that whatever they are, they will be packed full of fun, passion, kindness, love and laughter. And carrots. Always carrots.

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