A new fund to help teachers learn how to bring food and farming into the classroom is set to help thousands more children connect with farmers. Caroline Stocks finds out more.
Finding a leaflet about Open Farm Sunday in her staff pigeon hole prompted Hertfordshire teacher Helen Cox to think about how she could bring farming into her classroom.
Keen to find a way to teach her secondary school geography classes about food and sustainability, she realised linking it to a local farm might be an interesting way to do it.
One visit to Harpenden arable farmer Ian Pigott later, and Helen had found a way to not only bring farming to her class, but also to take her class to the farm.
Since then she has worked with Ian to take countless children to visit his farm and invited him to her school to talk about farming at careers days.
Source: Survey of 500 teachers via Countryside Classroom
Last year her school even worked with Ian, farm charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and Rothamsted Research to run a leadership project round slug management, helping boost children’s self-esteem while they worked with soil scientists to develop pest eradication programs.
It is a positive story, but one Helen recognises not every teacher has the chance to tell. Many people in her profession wouldn’t know how to approach a farmer, or have the ideas about how farming and education can link together.
She says: “Being a geography teacher, I’d always had an interest in soils, sustainability, and where food comes from, so it wasn’t too much of a jump to think about how I could incorporate it in my lessons.
“I was also really lucky that Ian’s farm is on our doorstep, and he was more than happy to be involved with hosting visits and working with us on projects.
“I now feel comfortable talking about farming and food in my classroom, which is important if we are going to get young people understanding where their food comes from and considering careers in food and farming. But not every teacher has the confidence.”
It’s an issue which FACE is preparing to tackle. Thanks to £10,000 funding from Bayer Crop Science, it plans to train 150 teachers to think more strategically about how farming might help them in the classroom.
The plan will see more than 12,000 children learning about farming across the country, and bring an additional 1,750 kids on farms each year.
The company decided to start the fund after its own surveys found farmers wanted to do more to teach children about farming, but were often put off by not knowing how to approach schools about hosting trips.
At the same time, research by Countryside Classroom, a FACE partner organisation, found half of all teachers rarely or never talked to children about farming in the classroom.
Source: Bayer survey of 1,279 farmers, plus follow-up phone interviews with 100 more
However, while most teachers wanted to incorporate food and farming into their lessons, they didn’t feel confident enough to do it or know where to get the information and resources from they needed (see pannels).
Dan Corlett, chief executive of FACE, says: “We’ve done lots of work with farmers by offering them the tools they need to host school visits, but this is about addressing how we talk to schools about farming.
“The current crop of teachers are from the generation which didn’t grow up learning about farming at school, so getting them onto farms midway through their careers is quite difficult.”
FACE has been working with some teacher training organisations to bring trainee teachers onto farms as part of their assessment.
By spending a day on-farm, they learn how agriculture can apply to many areas of the curriculum and they’re shown how to plan lessons round farm visits which can then be developed when they’re back in a classroom.
To date, this training has been ad-hoc, but Dan believes the new £10,000 fund will help the organisation tackle the issue in a more coordinated way across the country, potentially reaching hundreds of teachers.
“Part of the issue with teacher training at the moment is it doesn’t help trainees think how they might organise a class outdoors,” he says.
“Many of them don’t feel confident enough to do it, but we think we can break this cycle and get teachers confident about farming.
“This funding will help us reach 150 teachers, but that’s a conservative estimate. Once a teacher feels empowered, they can share what they have learned with other staff members and take those skills with them when they move on to new jobs, so potentially we could reach many more.”
For Helen Cox, who has become a trustee of FACE since taking her first class to Ian Pigott’s farm, it’s positive news for the teaching profession, children and farmers alike.
She says: “Experiences are great for learning, both for teachers and young people, and farms offer great experiences which are very close to schools. Giving teachers the confidence to see how usual farming can be to their teaching is vital.”
Cambridgeshire arable and livestock farmer Judith Jacobs has welcomed thousands of school children on her farm since she first started hosting school visits as part of her farm’s countryside stewardship scheme.
Initially committed to holding just four annual visits, she and her husband Andrew now have visitors through the year, including more than 8,500 people on a single day each June for Open Farm Sunday.
She says: “Once I started doing the visits I found I really enjoyed them, so things grew quickly. I got up to 25 visits a year, then I got some funding from Defra to build toilets and an educational access room and I was able to host even more.”
Having initially worked with her local village school in Newborough, Cambridgeshire, Judith approached schools in and around nearby Peterborough to see if teachers would be interested to bring their classes to visit.
“I found getting into schools quite difficult,” she says. “Teachers tend to think farm visits are too risky, so unless they understand what you’re doing they can be reluctant to listen.”
Having taken CEVAS farmer training, she knew some of the biggest concerns were around health and safety, so she drew up her own farm risk assessment which she gives to teachers to form the basis of their own.
She also invited teachers to the farm so they can look round ahead of a visit to familiarise themselves with it and get a sense of what learning experiences the farm could offer.
“Once you’ve established the link it is fine,” Judith says. “When a teacher finds me they stick with me and they come back year after year bringing different classes.”
Judith’s tips for approaching schools about farm education: