Promoting agriculture to a non-farming audience is one of the industry’s biggest challenges, not least because of the number of stereotypes still perceived by many. In the first of two reports looking at the role of agriculture in primary schools, Sarah Todd takes a closer look at the issue.
It is never too early to talk to primary school children about agriculture.
In fact, the sooner the conversation begins, the better chances of achieving a message which can resonate, as suggested by a number of industry and education leaders.
Youngsters make judgements about farming, food and rural life from a very early age and to leave addressing them until secondary school age is way too late.
This hard fact has been witnessed first-hand by Josh Payne, NFU education manager.
He was involved in a presentation at the Science Museum, Birmingham, with children being asked to name spinning items which might be used within agriculture, such as wind turbines.
Josh says: “A year five pupil piped up that a spinning device is needed to spray all the GMO crops.
“NFU president Minette Batters was there at the time and she has spoken about that nine-year-old on many occasions.
“Children of primary school age are like sponges. Who knows where that particular child heard about GMO crops from. Perhaps from the radio while sat in the back of his parents’ car or maybe a television programme?
The bottom line is that he had made a judgement and formed an opinion at such an early age.”
Josh used to work in engineering, promoting the sector from an educational point of view.
He says: “There are a lot of parallels, in that just like the child who starts secondary school might have already decided they do not want to work in engineering, there is a fair chance they could have dismissed agriculture as an industry of no interest to them.
“It is no exaggeration to say it is never too soon to start talking to children about farming. Agriculture needs to unite and promote itself as an exciting science.
Quite simply, leaving it until secondary school age is too late.”
Nigel Pulling, chief executive of Yorkshire Agricultural Society, agrees. He says: “We know the earlier we can get the agricultural message across to children the better.”
Nigel has witnessed at first-hand youngsters who do not know milk comes from cows.
The society, which organises the Great Yorkshire Show, has put its money where its mouth is and hosts a series of countryside days to promote agriculture to non-farming and rural audiences.
Held over two days, the society is always over-subscribed and attracts more than 6,000 children.
Places are offered free to schools and are aimed at Key Stage Two children (seven to 11 years old), who can enjoy up to 100 practical and interactive workshops covering every aspect of farming, the environment and the countryside.
Nigel says: “Inspiring the next generation is always at the front of our minds.
We want to continue to attract youngsters to our events, build up their knowledge of the countryside and encourage them to think of a career in farming or the countryside.
“In order to feed a growing population, we need to harness technology and farming is now a high-tech business with rewarding careers and we want to promote that.”
At the other end of the country, Essex Agricultural Society holds a food and farming day.
More than 3,000 children attend the annual event, which is held at Writtle University College, with financial support from Chelmsford City Council.
This year saw more than 60 primary schools take part, with the pupils, aged eight to 11, ‘seeing, tasting, touching and hearing’ about agriculture.
The children moved between five different zones representing the whole food cycle. Darren Bretton, a teacher from Westlands School, Chelmsford, attended the event.
He says:“In today’s society, children are not exposed to the local environment like I was as a child. Growing up surrounded by farmland and having a farm labourer for a father, I know where my food comes from.
“The food and farming day provided an amazing opportunity for our children to see first-hand the processes involved in food production. The many interactive exhibits manned by real farmers and food producers helped children understand the journey from field to fork.”
In Scotland, the Royal Highland Education Trust works with volunteers to provide free educational activities for children.
Just like the schemes in Yorkshire and Essex, it came about on the back of an existing agricultural event, the Royal Highland Show.
It is the converted who have taken up the mantle, with a network of more 1,000 volunteers giving their time to promote our industry to key future audiences.
One particularly inspiring element of the Scottish scheme is the ‘request a farm visit’ option on its website. Teachers can click on and book a fully risk assessed and supervised farm visit for their class, including free transport.
Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) enables 500,000 school children to visit farms each year.
Its FaceTime a Farmer initiative has transformed how farmers connect children with their food and where it comes from.
Once a fortnight, children chat live to their matched farmer from their classrooms through FaceTime or Skype, discuss ideas, ask questions, share knowledge and gain an understanding of the issues farmers face every day.
A new initiative, launched just last month, is a national network of ‘demonstration schools’, as Carl Edwards, director of education and public engagement at Leaf education, explains.
“Farming is relevant to every aspect of the curriculum.
We want to shine a light on schools which are leading the way in embedding farming into their teaching and support them.
“We want to share best practice, encourage innovation and drive forward real improvements in how our young people connect with their food, how it is produced and where it comes from.
“Developing a network of schools across the UK which are leading the way in this area will help provide a valuable focal point to inspire other schools.”
In contrast to the industry’s belief that the younger children learn about agriculture the better, the Department for Education’s statement for this Farmers Guardian special report did not even mention primary school years.
The big push seems to be apprenticeships, with two new courses currently being developed (further information will be available when we take a more detailed look at secondary education in our follow-up feature).
To be fair, it was the Government which identified a national skills shortage in STEM subjects (which includes agriculture) and launched an inquiry in January 2017.
This inquiry was dissolved due to the General Election in June 2017 and has been on the back burner ever since.
Josh continues: “We need to push for this inquiry to resume.
It is no surprise the Department only mentioned apprenticeships. “This is the attitude we are fighting against all the time; stuck in a bubble that agriculture is not a subject for academically able students.”
IN a statement to Farmers Guardian, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “Agriculture can be taught to pupils within the geography curriculum to deepen children’s understanding about the interaction between physical and human processes. “There is also a range of high quality and exciting apprenticeship opportunities available in the agriculture and farming sector, with everything from crop technician, environmental practitioner and land-based service engineer. “We are currently developing two new apprenticeship courses within the industry in recognition of the importance of this sector of work.”
HERE are a few ideas on how you can get involved:
As part of National Careers Week, held in March, a video was launched showcasing agriculture at the cutting edge of modern technology and at the forefront of innovations in key areas, such as IT, forensics, engineering, automation and design.
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.