With various initiatives taking place in schools across the country, the agricultural industry has a positive opportunity to talk about the lesser-known benefits which can help career choices. Sarah Todd finds out more.
A leaflet at a careers fair is not the way to encourage young people into agriculture.
As part of our #ThisIsAgriculture campaign, we have looked at the demise of traditional careers advice.
But rather than looking back at the corduroy-jacketed careers teachers of our own youths through rosetinted spectacles, the industry needs to be much more forward focusing.
Donna Ashlee, assistant principal at Brockhill Park Performing Arts College, says: “Children need to touch and feel things, like they are able to do at big science events, if they are to become engaged by the agricultural industry.
“It is so silly to be waving boring leaflets under their noses when ours is an industry with kit such as drones and driverless tractors.
“Agriculture has an absolute gift in that it is a high-tech industry with more than enough gadgets, plus animals, to be able to capture a child’s imagination.
“At a time where the disconnection between young people and where their food comes from is so wide, it is vital the industry gets on board.”
Donna, a farmer’s wife and daughter, is passionate about the benefits outdoor learning can bring.
She says: “Young people are so interested in the environment and sustainability.
This must be grabbed with both hands as the gift it is for attracting new blood into the farming industry.
“Also, at a time when mental health is very much under the spotlight, it is vital to stress the well-being benefits of being out in the fresh air and working with animals.
Pupils undoubtedly gain something very positive from a mental health point of view from being involved in the school farm.”
Brockhill developed a study programme called ‘Go outdoors’ for all Key Stage 3 pupils, allowing them to learn through outdoor experiences.
In a move away from traditional teacher-led book learning, it gives one farm lesson a week to every pupil from years seven and eight, encouraging hands-on practical work.
Lessons include a topic called ‘Reaping the harvest’, where students learn about the ‘grain train’, meaning the science behind the food, types of bread and how bread is made, and they get to make a simple soda bread in the lesson.
Students are also involved in an exercise based around pig production.
They visit the school farm’s pigs and analyse the accommodation and feeding.
They also design a new logo for the popular ‘Brilliant British Brockhill Bangers’, made from Brockhill pork, and the winning design is reproduced and used in sausage sales held in the school’s farm shop.
Students also get involved with the promotion and running of sausage sales.
Youngsters get the chance to see the full life cycle, through from the cows being artificially inseminated to scanning and births if possible.
Calves are often shown by pupils at Kent County Show before body condition scoring them and sending on as finished beef; with most returning in beef boxes to the school’s small farm shop.
Brockhill is part of the national School Farms Network, of which Donna Ashlee is chairwoman.
For more information, visit brockhill.kent.sch.uk
Students at Brockhill took part in bread-making as well as other activities
Brockhill Farm is the current holder of the Bayer/Linking Environment and Farming education secondary school partnership award.
It is a large secondary school sat up above the Cinque Port of Hythe, overlooking the English Channel.
The school, which was founded 70 years ago as an all-boys school, is home to a working farm.
A suckler herd allows the students to see the whole life cycle from artificial insemination to birth, and ultimately to finished beef sold in the school’s own farm shop.
There is also a flock of ewes, pigs, plus free-range hens and other small animals.
Of course, very few schools are lucky enough to have their own farm, but Donna says it is important to point out a lot of pupils attend because it is primarily a school specialising in performing arts.
“There are always children who have chosen this school because they want to perform, so the farm does not come into the equation at first for them at all,” says Donna, who has been at the school for 19 years, working her way up from stockperson to assistant principal.
“It is amazing how many of them, through coming into close contact with the farm, become engaged in agriculture.
It is only through seeing, touching and getting involved that this happens; not by reading about the farm in the school prospectus.”
Josh Payne, NFU education manager, says agriculture has so much to learn from hands-on education providers such as Donna and her team.
He says: “The conversion rate of those children who have had contact with a school farm is really high.
“The way we were trying to interest young people in the industry before quite simply does not work.
It was not having an impact.
“It is not nice sometimes to listen to a message saying we have been getting it wrong, but there are no two ways about it, the future is engaging directly with schools.
The chances of a child walking into a careers fair and picking up a leaflet about agriculture and being inspired are very slim.
“A relationship between farms, employers and schools is the way forward.
The industry has so much to learn from school farm innovators such as Donna.”
There are more than 120 school farms in the UK.
The School Farms Network was set up by Social Farms and Gardens, a UK-wide charity supporting communities to farm, garden and grow together.
It aims to:
Farms Network has produced a free guide called ‘Get your hands dirty’.
The guide provides comprehensive advice on growing plants and keeping animals in schools.
This resource is useful for all teachers, whether you are thinking of starting to grow plants or wanting to start more complex activities.
For more information, visit: farmgarden.org.uk
The possibilities for agriculture students are vast
Brockhill is a non-selective comprehensive school.
Over the years it has had a lot of students go on to study agriculture, animal science and veterinary nursing.
Donna says: “We even have one who became a vet.
There are grammar schools here in Kent, so we are very proud of the student who became a specialist equine vet.
“Other students have gone on to be dog groomers, vet nurses, farm managers, dairymen and tractor drivers.
Out of our five sixth formers who studied animal management last year, four of them are studying in a related subject area.
“The year before, we had 11 students, out of which seven went on to study an animal- or agriculture-related course at university.
One is travelling and working with elephants.”
Farmers Guardian has joined forces with 21 key industry stakeholders from across the farming sector to launch a new campaign, #ThisIsAgriculture, to promote careers in agriculture.
The challenge of recruiting is not a new one. Attracting new blood into the industry has always been an issue, with agriculture rarely sold as an exciting option into schools.
However, with the pace of technological change rapidly widening the skills gap and Brexit looming, the need to drive change within the industry has intensified greatly over recent years.
Building on the learning from the #ThisIsAgriculture survey, this initiative will work to educate the wider world about the wealth of opportunities available within the sector, as well as dispelling common myths about careers in agriculture.
We will also be collaborating with industry bodies and our industry partners to see where we can work together to shape the political agenda, drive educational reform and provide learning resources.
The campaign will also be sharing information with readers about how to attract – and retain – the right staff for farming businesses across the UK.