Confidence, cooking and creativity - how chickens are transforming classrooms across the UK
When Claire Peach reaches into the coop and pulls out an egg to show it to school children, she invariably gets a big reaction.
"I didn't know that eggs came out of chickens!" yelled a surprised seven-year-old boy last week at Earlsmead Primary School in Tottenham.
"Suddenly, they make the connection," says Peach, who runs a company called Hens for Hire, which rents out chickens to schools, pre-schools, residential care homes for the elderly and community groups. "In a two-hour session, children can go from being very nervous, to happily sitting with a hen on their lap, insisting that they want to be the one to collect the eggs."
Hens, according to Peach, make excellent teaching aids. Not only can you whip up a frittata with freshly-laid eggs during cookery classes, but you can calculate the number of eggs in maths ('if three hens each laid an egg a day, how many eggs would you have in a week?'), there are some cracking science experiments that involve blowing up eggs and in English lessons, the chickens, apparently, inspire creative writing.
"The eggs are also sold to staff and parents," says Peach. "They're used in the sponges for Friday cake clubs and the hens are also a fun and relaxing sight for pupils during the day."
However, for many schools the major setback is the problem of what to do with 'henny' and 'penny' during the holidays. This is where Hens for Hire comes in; Peach rents out the chickens and brings them home at the end of term.
"It works really well," says Nicola Bradley, the inclusion support manager at Paulet high school in Burton-on-Trent, which rents hens from Peach. "Some of our students have never been close to real chickens before and this way, we can allow them to keep hens without worrying about what to do in the holidays or if the hens are unwell."
Peach, who has a smallholding in rural Staffordshire, runs courses in hen keeping, and keeps hens herself but it wasn't until she was asked by a local school about hen keeping that she got the idea for her business.
"The first place my hens went was a pupil referral unit, for children who are excluded from mainstream schools," says Peach. "A few of the children were disruptive and I wasn't sure how it was going to work out but they remembered everything I taught them and cared for the hens really well."
Peach then trialled the idea in the school attended by her own children (now aged eight and eleven) and by 2011 the business began to take off. At the start, she had a couple of chicks out on hire. She now has 70 hens on location across the UK, in over 30 schools from Liverpool to Bournemouth and she's worked with over 8,000 children. It led to her winning the Theo Phaphitis Small Business Sunday Award last year.
Peach supplies all of the equipment from the chicken coop to the food and cleaning solutions. She also provides teaching resources and advice on how to spot any potential ill health.
The costs vary but it's roughly £1,500 for the package, which includes two chickens for a year and the hire of an incubator over spring. Peach regularly checks the hens' health and is available on the phone for advice. She adheres to high welfare standards, in line with the RSPCA's five freedoms for animals. The chickens are fully vaccinated and are hired in pairs. Initially, Peach tried using ex-battery hens but concluded that hens who have lived "such a stressful life" needed permanent homes, not to be travelling or on loan.
Sometimes pre-school children can be nervous around larger hens, so Peach is now also hiring out quails.
"Younger children find them less intimidating than larger hens and they like the eggs, as they're not the ones they're used to seeing in supermarkets," she says.
Once the hens are getting on a bit they retire to Peach's smallholding.
"I make sure they have a lovely life," says Peach. "They have no meat on them but I wouldn't eat them anyway, I let them happily wander around."
At Paulet school, the hens are situated next to a vegetable patch. During the day they free range, while in the evenings and at weekends, food and water is left out and the hens are put safely in the hen house.
The eggs are sold to the staff for £1.20 for six and the money is spent on seeds so the pupils can grow their own produce. As the vegetables grow, the pupils will eat them, along with the eggs.
Says Bradley: "If anyone accidentally drops an egg during a cookery class, they know where to pop outside to find another."
To find out more about Hens for Hire, see the website here.
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