Hadlow Rural Community School is pioneering farming as a positive career choice and nurturing children by equipping them with life-long skills. Sue Scott finds out more about the school with a soul.
“I really hope I get into your awesome school. I live on a farm and I wish to be a farmer or something to do with animals when I’m older, so I think your school would be good for me.”
So wrote one excited 10-year-old after visiting Hadlow Rural Community School (HRCS) at its new £7 milllion home this month in the heart of Kent.
He is not the only one to be impressed.
Last year, Ofsted inspectors described the close links between the school’s academic and land-based studies as innovative and inspiring before going on to deliver an overwhelmingly positive report.
This September, editors of the influential Parliamentary Review of Secondary Education chose Hadlow to appear alongside 13 other schools – all exceptional in their own way, but none of them making a virtue of vocational study, let alone with a strongly science-led curriculum built around the theory and practice of farming and its allied trades.
The first secondary school of its type in the country, HRCS started life in a set of converted pig sheds in the grounds of Hadlow College in 2013.
It was, in the words of one farming governor, a ‘trailblazing’ opportunity to bust the myth that all a land-based career could offer was a life of muck and not much brass.
Three years on, it is succeeding in its mission. Eighty per cent of leavers this summer elected to continue their land-based studies at a college of further education and some are contemplating offers of an agricultural apprenticeship.
There are enough Year nines and Year 10s taking triple science with degree aspirations this term to warrant organising trips to both NIAB East Malling Research Centre for crop production and universities offering veterinary medicine.
Headteacher Paul Boxall believes he has succeeded in changing attitudes towards the school, which competes for pupils in a county where selective education never went away – England’s first new grammar in 50 years is being built within Hadlow’s catchment, adding to the 33 already in Kent.
He says: “I think we’ve hit a certain group of students. On last year’s application list we had a really large percentage of second choices from among pupils who had put a grammar first.
“We’re attracting that calibre of student. If you do not go to a grammar school, you come to us,” says Paul.
It is an important point. Because while the unique learning experience at Hadlow has proven to suit children of all abilities, it is also about sending a message that there are plenty of challenging, highly skilled and highly rewarded roles in the land-based industries for the most ambitious.
Those opportunities are only likely to increase. According to Lantra, nearly half the land-based sector is made up of skilled trade occupations, compared to 11 per cent across all sectors of the economy, and yet landbased and environmental employers are much more likely to say there are not enough people interested in doing the type of work they are offering.
For experts in agronomy, plant pathology and agricultural engineering they are increasingly likely to look abroad for labour which might not be as easy to access post-Brexit.
Lantra blames schools for failing to attach the significance they once did to subjects which translate into careers in the land-based sector and points to an overall lack of awareness and advice for young people on the paths they could follow there.
Those are not charges which can be leveled at Hadlow. Here, every student leaves with at least a Level 2 land-based qualification alongside his or her GCSEs.
Teachers and college lecturers, who deliver the specialist courses, collaborate on schemes of work and take part in joint classroom observations, strengthening the land-based connection and helping to embed it across the entire curriculum.
In the five years students spend here, they will have probably milked a cow, driven a tractor, made sense of lambing percentages and soil tests.
And then to add to this, a contribution to the school’s flourishing rural business in HRCS-branded apple juice, made from fruit harvested by pupils on the Hadlow College farm, marketed and sold by them.
Neither teachers nor students are fazed when, as has happened, classmates turn up with freshly shot pheasant for the home economics lesson; and they will willingly climb into the pens at lambing time.
You can also expect to find steel toe capped boots on your 11-year-old’s uniform list or a dedicated boot room at school in which to store them.
A compulsory ‘enrichment day’ which keeps pupils on-site once-a-week to take part in a choice of activities, includes an option for animal care, which the school hopes will morph into a Young Farmers’ Club.
The dedicated outdoor teaching area beside the new school building at the heart of the Hadlow College campus will be another opportunity to put the knowledge students gain from their day-a-week of land-based lessons to good use.
Paul is probably the only head in the country who is contemplating adding chickens to his staff’s teaching resources and he intends to grow fruit and veg for the canteen here too.
It all goes to create an environment where learning is not just something you get through, but has a tangible connection with the world of work, or, as Ofsted noted: “The land-based activities develop traits which are preparing students well for their next steps in education and employment, such as leadership, teamwork and confidence in unfamiliar situations.”
Governor George Jessell, who farms 810 hectares (2,000 acres), puts it another way.
“If a student expresses an interest in genetic modification, plant breeding or a science which leads to a veterinary course, it’s right on their doorstep.
I want students to say ‘Wow, they are doing a worthwhile job and I want to get involved with that’. It means rural is not looked upon as where you go if you’ve no hope of going anywhere else.”
The school has seen applications grow from 150 to 250 over the past 12 months and Paul is confident of filling the 75 spaces left on the newly expanded roll for next September.
In fact, the experiment Hadlow College principal Paul Hannan hoped would have a ‘transformative impact’ on parents’ perception of the land-based industries when it became the first land-based college to go down the free school route, has been so successful that this year work will begin on planning another.
Meanwhile, existing HRCS pupils will soon be offered the chance to stay on to study for A-levels alongside a Level 3 qualification at the college, dealing them an even stronger hand in the jobs market.
Parent Lesley Olney, who farms beef and sheep on 40ha (100 acres) of grassland at Shoreham, Kent, was so impressed by the school she was prepared for her girls, Rosie, 14, and Chloe, 12, to make a 25-mile round trip every day to attend.
“Rosie narrowly missed passing her 11+ for Dartford Grammar School, but as soon as she visited Hadlow she said that is where I want to go, even though the school was barely up and running at that point,” says Lesley.
“From day one she just loved it.
“Both girls are involved in the farm. They help me with lambing and are there when the calves are born, so when it came to catching sheep in the school’s land-based classes, Chloe could help show the others how it’s done. But my husband and I can only pass on so much.”
Rosie is contemplating a career in animal science, as are several of her school friends whose only prior experience of animals had been nothing larger than a house pet.
“It makes children consider things they would never thought of doing as career,” says Lesley.
“It’s a very special place. I tell the girls that one day they will realise how lucky they have been to be there – whatever they go on to do.”