The Cotswold Community Farm

By Dave Cooper | Published in Therapeutic Communities (2002), Vol. 23, No. 2.

Dave Cooper.

Chance is a fine thing and often travels in unexpected ways. I first arrived at the Cotswold Community in 1985 to work as the farm assistant. 310 acres of arable crops and grassland surrounded the tight cluster of buildings that is the “village” that is the Cotswold Community. Now for over 30 years the Cotswold Community has been a therapeutic residence working, using psychodynamic principles, with boys carrying severe emotional disturbance. It has a school, housing for staff, separate “households” for groups of up to 8 boys each, a trade maintenance unit and converted Cotswold farm buildings in use for administration, offices and meeting rooms. There is a gym, heated outdoor swimming pool, pottery workshop, forge, large playing field and lots and lots of trees. Most importantly, or tragically, whichever way you want to look at it, three can be up to 32 boys resident during the school terms, boys coming from all over the country. And there is the farm. A ring of peace, containment and security, a “cordon sanitaire” between the storms that beset the boys resident here and the general public; a place to run to. The farm is managed along commercial lines to make a profit. It is a „real‟ situation and the staff „real‟ people. When I arrived some of the older, more integrated, boys might use it for a bit of work experience and there were usually groups of boys that would help stacking the straw and hay bales into the barns during the summer. But for most, the farm and its staff was a case of „them over there‟. And apart from making that profit, little more was expected of it. The farm had become severely run down and inefficient during the community‟s post-war role as an approved school. A major task had been to concentrate on improving on this, and all that hard work was just coming to fruition. There was little, if any, thought of the farm being a therapeutic resource.

Soon after I arrived, I started a routine of regularly visiting, one evening a week, one of the primary households which are the homes for unintegrated boys. It wasn‟t a required element of my job but something I did out of interest on a voluntary basis.

Doing that, and building up trust and relationships with the boys, led to several of them asking to visit the farm to help out. So we tried it. Young, physically immature unintegrated and disturbed children working alongside commercially minded agricultural professionals. God, it was and is hard work. Frustrating, mentally taxing, and requiring the patience of Job. The farm team (the farm manager plus one assistant) has a job to do and the boys work alongside us. The boys have to be given time to achieve but 5 minutes is a heck of a long time when you are waiting until a boy achieves the task of hammering home a nail! But something apart was happening. On returning to their households boys were talking about it to the staff. Comments were coming back from the school about boys playing at farms in the sand trays – playing? Play usually meant broken windows, thieving, illicit smoking and drinking, breaking into places, cussing and swearing, winding other boys up! Soon, also drawings and colourings began to be given to us and the farm office became a gallery of artistic efforts. Perceptive residential social workers soon realised what was happening and that certain boys were going to be able to use the experience of being with us as a piece of the jigsaw of the road to their recovery. Before long those boys were having regular visits to the farm on a weekly basis. No doubt one of the initial attractions to many of the boys of having a regular farm visit was not having to attend school. We soon transcended that particular aspect by getting the boys to quickly realise that they were going to have to do some work and that there was an obligation to turn up, rain or shine, warm or cold. As a waiting list developed of boys eager to have a farm time, the actual possession of one became quite important to many boys who were relishing what they were getting out of it.

A system was developed. We would only have one boy at a time. We had to be aware of the safety factor and we also had a farm to run. A boy would have a maximum of half a day a week. Unintegrated boys have a low concentration threshold and are low in confidence, so initially they would be with us for just 1 ½ hours. As they grew in confidence and their concentration improved, then we would increase their time, usually in two increments until they were with us for the whole of a morning or afternoon. To put an expectation on the boys of having to be able to cope immediately, with a complete half-day, would knock them for six, and jeopardise much of the hard work that has already been done by the residential social workers. A boy will always have a couple of informal visits first. I want to be able to make a judgement on whether a boy will be safe enough before agreeing to a formal farm time, and also it gives a boy a chance to see what he is letting himself in for. The boys are provided with overalls but we developed a system whereby we would give the boys a month, both for them to decide whether they wanted to keep coming, and for us to decide if they were coping with the situation. After that time they would be provided with a pair of overalls, not as a reward but as a recognition that they were coping. And what happened? After one week a child would ask “When can I get my overalls?” After two weeks a child would ask “Am I ready for my overalls yet?” In time this obviously became a goal that the child would aim for, as was the increase in the length of time they would be with us. This was an unexpected bonus; another way to instil a sense of achievement.

As time went on we began to see more and more how the boys benefited from being involved in a farm environment. It is so easy to give them a sense of achievement, a feel-good factor – a nail hammered in straight, a fencing staple put in, a straw bale carried across the yard without having to stop for a rest, managing to climb up a ladder, merely the farm staff saying thank you for the help, being able finally to shout at a cow and seeing it move to where you want it to go, survive a hard frosty morning. Simple things that we take for granted but for the boys door-opening factors. Slowly, imperceptibly, through the practice of the individual farm times, the farm too became more an integral part of the Community and it‟s culture. Within the “formal” framework of boys‟ individual farm times there were still the occasions when groups of boys – and staff – were able to get involved. In particular loading up bales of hay and straw onto trailers and stacking them into the barn were popular and even „fun‟ times, sometimes bordering on the “organised” chaotic as whole households would turn out. But the importance of those times would be demonstrated a year on when some boys would remember and remark upon the good time that they had had the year previously. So gratifying and so easy to have been part of providing an experience for these highly disturbed children that not only was good enough to provide a memory, but also strong enough that they felt “safe” to be able to verbalise that good memory.

Later, purely a farming decision, we started a sheep enterprise, rising eventually to a flock of 250 ewes for fat lamb production. We had always had cattle, but generally we were restricted as to how we could directly involve boys with them, due to safety factors and also simply that most of the boys were frightened of them. However, from a therapeutic tool viewpoint, having sheep proved ideal. If the boys had any fear they quickly got over it. The sheep were very much a “hands-on” form of help – they were small, there was something to hold onto (wool) and there were many different kinds of experiences involved in the general husbandry. With sheep too, there have been occasions when we have been able to give a boy a certain task to do which we have deliberately left him to do unsupervised. The response of the boy to that trust in him and our confidence in his ability to do the job – the light in his face, the straightness of the back, the walk two inches taller – shows again how the farm can be used. The cows and the sheep, particularly in winter when they are housed indoors began to fulfil another function when sometimes a boy could suddenly turn up at the farm buildings alone. As generally unsupervised and unaccompanied visits to the farm by the children are not allowed, we knew that the child in that moment was probably experiencing one of the more frightening aspects of his disturbance and was using the calming influence of the animals to get himself through it.

We began to notice, too, other benefits the farm environment was able to provide. Educationally the boys were picking up so much as we talked and as we worked; the passage of the season, plant growth, animal growth. Let‟s put in some science, or animal health and diseases. Oh yes, and sex! Reproduction and artificial insemination, just where these boys are so streetwise and screwed up. Teachers started coming down with boys – maths (what weight of milk powder do you use, how many litres per day, what is the cost, how big is a hectare, areas of fields; if sheep need 1.5 square metres of space each, how many sheep can we put in this pen?) Rural science (weights of new-born lambs and a 6 weeks growth curve) and more. Learning without pain for boys where education previously was only pain and seeing how the learning is applied in adult life, i.e. the whole point of learning.

Practical skills also came into the equation. Traditionally farmers need to be able to turn a hand at most trades – albeit at various levels of proficiency and no doubt at times we would have sent a qualified tradesman into apoplexy! However, despite that there are times when water-pipes need to be fixed or laid (plumbing), walls built, or repaired, after they had been run into with a tractor (bricklaying), carpentry, welding, mechanics. We do draw the line though at electrics. With all of these skills we are able to involve the boy into doing even some small part, to put him onto the first step. I guess that in a way it goes towards providing a parental experience when the child would be involved with a father in DIY jobs around the house.

Don‟t let me try to fool you that it is all a bed of roses. The frustrations and exasperations can be immense. Boys have their off-days when other preoccupations and difficulties within themselves make us want to throw in the towel and send them back to the household, or when we can breathe a deep sigh of relief that their time is finished for the day so that we can take them back to the household and return to get on with the job properly. Often their manual dexterity is poor initially and we are torn between giving the boy the chance to finish his task and having to get on with the work. Our own feelings have to be contained within ourselves as the boys soak up our projections so easily and translate them into their own inadequacies. The ego strength of the boys is so low that it is very difficult for them to fight through feelings of tiredness or heaviness. So many times it is a case of “I‟ve got to have a rest”, or “it‟s too heavy for me”. And yet, I firmly believe that managing the farm on commercial lines and providing a real experience of a working role model is an important factor in the use of the farm as a therapeutic tool. The boys respond to that difference. To re-create the farm as a teaching farm, or to move along the lines of providing multi-experiences, such as having fewer of more types of animals, or more types of crops, without a thought for the economical factors involved, would lessen the impact and I feel its usefulness. The sense of reality is further strengthened when we have to suspend farm times during peak periods of the farming year when we have to get on with tractor work and combining etc. We also selectively suspend, temporarily, some individuals during lambing time. Intimate involvement at lambing brings boys into contact with the more messy aspects – dead lambs, prolapses, deformities, afterbirth etc. For some we feel it would be too disturbing and difficult to cope with. For others, it is good to confront it. And imagine the other parts of the children‟s lives that are confronted, even if unconsciously, in relation to sheep and lambing – orphan lambs, fostered lambs – e.g. a triplet lamb taken away from the ewe and fostered onto a ewe with only one lamb, ewes that won‟t allow a lamb to suckle, ewes that will batter a lamb, lambs that have to be bottle fed. How much do the children identify with what can be going on and perhaps use it to sublimate their own sadness. And if they can‟t cope then at least it is exposed for the staff to help them. We are able, too, to give the boys the opportunity to use and challenge their functioning bits. Many times we have been surprised to see how some of the most difficult children have been able to respond and function quite normally (as we would recognise it) and have allowed the expression of their innate intelligence to show initiative and common sense.

Thus the scope and usefulness of the farm environment has broadened and increased as we learn. The realisation that the children with us are experiencing a facet of life and are gaining the kind of experiences at such close quarters, that probably most other children do not have a chance to do, is immensely satisfying for us and immeasurably sustaining to the children involved. For inner-city children to be able to look over a hedge and to know intimately what is going on in the field must improve their quality of life. Boy‟s achievements and increase in confidence on the farm are visibly tangible both to the staff and more importantly to the boys themselves and relationships are long lasting. Long faces are smiling, under-achievers are learning, pessimists are persevering and fat, ungainly children are soon performing physical feats that they never realised they were capable of. Indeed, one boy who began with us unable even to climb onto the back of a small farm trailer, has gone on to represent his country at adult level in his chosen sport but that is another story.


I came to the Cotswold Community in 1985 as the assistant to the Farm Manager, having worked in agriculture for the greater proportion of my working years. A few years after, I was offered, and accepted, the position of Farm Manager. It was out of interest of getting to know more of the problems that the children referred to the Cotswold Community carry with them and a desire to do a little bit more to help out than just to work on the farm, that I began to visit one of the households once a week in the evenings when the seasonal farm work allowed it. I also asked to be allowed to attend the weekly internal training groups that took place. This training took the form of discussion groups facilitated by one of the experienced senior staff. Papers and articles had to be read beforehand. It was generally informal but totally centred on the therapeutic work that was done and the psycho-dynamic processes involved, including not just current practices and thinking but also some of the historical processes and thinking that led up to it. The papers included works by Winnicott, Wills, Bettelheim, Klein, Menzies-Lyth, Dockar-Drysdale and many others. The training groups consisted of a cross section of members of staff so was invaluable also in getting to know the staff personally and the types of problems they faced in their work. The training generally lasted three years.

When I became the Farm Manager, and directly involved in the recruitment process for the farm, I too recognised, as no doubt did the senior management already, the importance of the farm personnel to be receptive and perceptive to the problems and needs of the children who might be with us. The interview process of subsequent farm assistants put just as much emphasis on this quality in the applicant as on farming ability and experience. I made it a requirement to attend the training. I also encouraged whoever was employed to voluntarily spend some regular time in the households as I had done, if only for a year or so. As is well known, exposure to the children‟s disturbance opens us up to our own and if we allow ourselves to think about it then we learn to be truly empathic. But we also have to find a balance in the way we use the knowledge we learn. Part of our role on the farm is as a bridge between the core work being undertaken in the school and households and the reality of the outside world. It is important for the children who work with us to be able to relax so that a particular kind of relationship can be formed. Therefore it is best that we on the farm are not seen to “know too much” and to sometimes “react normally”. Difficult to do when it is so easy to empathise.

The Cotswold Community‟s internal management recognised the work of the farm staff, the effect on some of the agricultural practices, and the value of the therapeutic input we provided, by arranging for the Education Department to “buy” our services at a cost of a third of the farm salaries. A paper exercise certainly within the Cotswold Community finances as a whole, but an acknowledgement of the farm‟s usefulness.