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Varndean School: Pastoral provision for kids and fully grown goats!

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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In September 2016, something very exciting happened here at Varndean School in Brighton. Five short, fluffy, slight tubby pygmy goats entered our lives for the first time and have barged, bleated and bumped their way into our hearts and our school community ever since. The first four goats, Maya, Bertie, Alan and Ethel are named after our four school bases - Angelou, Russell, Turing and Ellis. The last one, William, is named after our headteacher, William Deighan.

Rehomed from a school farm in Essex, the goats came to Varndean to enhance the school’s strong pastoral provision by giving city children the chance spend time outdoors, learning about and interacting with these charming and friendly creatures. Since then our lives have been taken over with all things Goaty. Goat Club runs every lunchtime, with over 100 members signed up. Students of all ages spend time in the GoatsQuad, sweeping up, feeding, brushing and learning about animal care and welfare.


Goat Club is run and managed by a team of staff volunteers, but really all the hard work is done by the students themselves. Any Goat Club member will be able to tell you more than you could ever want to know about how to care for, feed and clean up after pygmy goats, and 17 students have managed to earn their highly prized Goat Badges for going above and beyond in some way. We also have four student Goat Leaders who are learning leadership skills by running some goat club sessions, meeting and greeting visitors and promoting all things Goaty.

The goats themselves have had an extremely exciting time - they were a massive hit at Open Evening, they’re used in lots of creative ways to support teaching and learning in several subject areas, they go out on regular walks around the grounds, and they’ve featured in their own motion picture:

YouTube link

They’ve also hosted a visit from two alpacas, attended Assembly, have their own range of merchandise, and have even been selected to have Hot Chocolate with the head and #HotChocFri creator Paul Dix of Pivotal Education. The goats have a growing following on social media, and they even have their own successful Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts, providing a unique, humorous and four-legged outlook on life in a busy, vibrant Secondary school.

Aside from the fun of having these funny, lively characters as pets, the goats play an important part in supporting our pastoral care provision. There are copious well-documented studies on the successful use of animals as therapy in helping young people communicate and develop strong nurturing bonds with animals in a non-threatening and mindful manner. For some young people, being greeted by a stampede of furry, noisy goats, and having the experience of someone being genuinely delighted to see them, is a very welcome and all-too-rare occurrence.

We have already seen the impact the goats have had in this respect and they are being used to support a number of students with specific needs. Students are able to access some quiet one-to-one time with the goats, and a few minutes spent outside will almost always serve a calming and useful purpose. The GoatsQuad is also a quiet and tranquil place where staff can also spend a quiet few minutes to rebalance and refocus in what can be a stressful and hectic world.

Staff and students from other local schools, playgroups and provisions have also come in to visit the goats to hear about what we do, the positive impact it is having on our students and how they might also be able to use animal therapy in their work. Through social media and word of mouth we have already made a large number of connections both inside and outside of education, and we are beginning to think about more innovative ways of working in partnership across Brighton and beyond, to further enrich the lives, education and careers of children and learners in our community.

So, only one term in and it feels like they’ve been here forever. The goats are well and truly part of the Varndean family. One of Varndean’s mottos is “It takes a village to raise a child” - we believe our village is flourishing, and are delighted that it has expanded to include five more members into our happy herd.

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