The great school farms revival
We, as a community, are always going to need the skills to grow food and raise livestock. It’s fundamental and perhaps that realisation, driven by today’s increased interest in where and how our food is produced, is what is behind the recent rise in school farm registrations.
A hundred years ago there was something in the order of 2,500 schools growing their own produce. This illustrates perfectly the importance that was placed on agriculture at the time, something that was highlighted further during the Second World War when numbers increased again with livestock beginning to feature more prominently as domestic food production became essential to keep the country running.
Things continued in this vein until the 1980s when the focus in school curriculums changed and, in a drastic turnaround, by 2006 there were fewer than 70 left.
Luckily, before they disappeared completely, the need for a more active and accessible support structure was recognised and the School Farms Network was formed with support from the Department for Education (then Department for Education and Skills) and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens. This network has been the driving force for awareness and ultimately the recent resurgence of the school farm, offering advice and direction for anyone wanting to make the transition. Today the network is growing at the rate of 10 a year and now boast over 100 schools with as many again having expressed an interest in joining.
Of course it’s not as easy as making the decision and doing it. Different schools will have different requirements depending on their current circumstances. Those with strong connections in the agricultural community already will have the advantage of local advice and support, perhaps even funding. Some will be starting with land or buildings ripe for conversion, whilst others will have a blank canvas.
Either way, the School Farms Network can provide advice and support that includes finding a mentor or the specialist advice needed to get you going. They have also produced the Get Your Hands Dirty resource pack which provides a progression route through the key stages such as when to register as an agricultural holding and information regarding livestock transportation as well as guidance on important policy such as the Code of Practice to help prevent zoonoses.
Some schools will be more suitable than others but any school has the potential to join the network whether private, state or schools for children with special needs. Lack of land or difficult locations, lack of experience and lack of funds are often problems that can be solved by talking to other experienced school farmers and learning from their experience.
Ian Egginton-Metters of the SFN suggests “It is important to have a vision which can be shared by colleagues, parents, pupils and the local community, but then be prepared to adapt: start small and build confidence, accept donations (including equipment and feed) that fit the overall plans. Start with ‘easier to manage’ stock such as poultry and only take on stock where more than one person already has direct experience behind them. Many schools start by rearing a few poultry, sometimes in arks or small runs, and build skills, knowledge, experience, and importantly enthusiasm and commitments.” He adds “We would regard a school as running a farm if it had a variety of farm livestock, as opposed to just a few poultry, so there are a number in ‘transition’ to this status. We have some schools with just a handful of sheep, goats and occasionally piglets, through to those with more land, rearing a reasonable flock of sheep, a herd of Devon Red Polls or breeding sows. We have others with arable cropping and everything in between!”
Inspiration and ideas come from many different sources! The first primary school farm, for example, started when the Head heard about a School Farms Network (SFN) event. He decided to come along and see what it was all about (he was initially interested in environmental education); and hasn’t looked back since. The farm is now one of the main attractions (for parents and children alike) to the school. They have even created a new post for an ex-pupil who is now responsible for the day to day activities of the farm and outdoor environment.
Of course on-going support needs to be better for some than others and this is where support from local business is so important. Pretty much all school farms have some links with local business; farmers may supply fodder, cost price hay, or feed (which, if bought in small quantities, would be very expensive) sponsorship and/or advice. Local vets often help, even sitting on the farm committees and agricultural colleges provide advice and even placements. Getting other organisations and businesses involved can also be a great way of expanding the experience. In Kent, for example, school farms are very well supported by the NFYFC which offers advice, training and even the chance to show stock at County Shows, among other things. There are no substitutes for this on-hand local expertise in an emergency and the relationships built are often as fulfilling for the businesses as for the pupils and teachers involved.
Businesses can engage in many ways through donations of materials and equipment, through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or arranging team development activities to improve the farm sites and even by offering careers/recruitment advice. Others may be able to offer staff or relatives with farming experience, business advice, or tips on sourcing of materials at the best prices. Whatever form it takes all school farms will have examples of how local businesses have supported them.
Clearly the benefits of school farms are manyfold for example, where grazed land doesn’t require contractors to cut the grass; and there are also more wide-ranging benefits such as for those pupils where practical skills come more naturally than classroom learning. Understanding how food is produced, provenance and food quality is very topical and of increasing interest; preparing a meal from food that the pupils have grown and reared themselves; improved general health and well-being by learning outdoors are all notable benefits.
As far as integrating the farms into the curriculum goes, all primary and special schools teachers are encouraged to use the resource, whether for personal & social education, team work, measurements and project work, even religious studies. In secondary schools it depends more on the school, the Head and other teachers, especially now that vocational learning has been downgraded. At present, these qualifications won’t be recognised in school league tables and this can be a problem as some Heads will be concerned about offering qualifications that may not carry the same ‘weight’ as more mainstream subjects – particularly relevant when applying for University places. However, schools do also have obligations to provide ‘awe and wonder’ experiences and its hard to imagine a better way to do this than have young people experience the birth of a lamb, or care for a sick animal. Some school farms have been able to make the farm a ‘whole school resource’; accessible to and used by teachers from all departments. One school has 4 teachers from 4 departments responsible for the farm to ensure that it is used by the whole school with each child in years 7 & 8 spending one hour each week on the farm under their PELTS (Personal Learning and Thinking Skills) programme. Others have an agricultural teacher running the farm who is available for any teacher to help prepare and deliver specific lessons. A few examples are; inspiration for poetry, still life (well, probably moving a little!) drawings and real life feed and growth rates data used through the school intranet for maths and science.
Stratton Upper School & Community College, Biggleswade
There has been a school farm on the site of Stratton Upper School & Community College since the early 1950s when it was a learning centre for local market gardeners. At that time it had just a prefab lab building (which still exists today) and a 20ft greenhouse. It was later a grammar school before it become the 1,300 pupil school it is today.
The farm has been run for the last 12 years by Imogen Ash, Lead Agriculture Teacher, with two other members of staff – a science teacher and a technician.
Currently, the farm has seven breeding sows, a flock of 25 sheep with a ram, 50 broilers, 30-40 laying hens, 3 alpacas and a selection small animals. They also have 200 turkeys fattening for Christmas. Quite a headcount I’m sure you’ll agree but the farm needs to be this diverse in order to fulfil the criteria required to teach the courses it offers.
All year nine students have at least 20 agricultural lessons a year where they will learn about where food comes from, how it is produced, environmental systems and recycling among other things.
As they move up the school students can opt to take environmental and land based science courses such as the GCSE in Agriculture and Rural Science or a practical National Vocational Qualification. When they reach Key Stage 5 they can undertake National Vocational Qualifications in Horticulture or Livestock Production.
Students are also offered the opportunity to take part in lunchtime and after school farm clubs where they learn skills in animal husbandry and farm maintenance with help from older students
The farm is completely self-funded from the sale of its produce. It sells mainly to staff, parents and local residents from its own premises on the site. It provides both fresh and frozen, pork, lamb and chicken and supplements the meat sales with a seasonal business in bedding plants.
As yet the government has no specific plans to support school farm development. Ian believes that, “It would be useful to have Ofsted visits include the farm as a requirement. It seems, with future food security, tackling obesity and healthier eating high on government agendas, all these issues lend themselves to supporting school farms in delivering against these objectives. However, as yet it is proving difficult to persuade government into providing support. Developing more school farms is critical to us making a bigger impact.”
Pocket Farm, for one, hope that this aim comes to fruition.
For more information on existing School farms or establishing a new one contact Ian Egginton-Metters, Assistant CEO, Federation of City Farms & Community Gardens (FCFCG) & School Farms Network Co-ordinator, c/o 32 Mendip Drive, Frome, Somerset BA11 2HT
Tel/Fax: 01373 302204 Mobile: 07939 230053 Email: email@example.com or visit www.schoolfarms.org.uk Please note this is a part-time office, so please allow a few days for a response.
The main Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens office:
The GreenHouse, Hereford Street, Bedminster, Bristol BS3 4NA
Tel: 0117 923 1800 Fax: 0117 923 1900 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Registered in England as a Limited Company No: 2011023 & Registered Charity No: 294494
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