Where the class is greener

Sarah Todd vis­its a school at which chil­dren get close to the coun­try­side

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Family & Education -

‘I’m so pleased they let me out of sew­ing club,” re­veals Har­ley be­fore chris­ten­ing his pris­tine over­alls in the mud as his class­mates form a scrum to feed the pigs.

They are big on ex­tracur­ric­u­lar clubs at 11-yearold Har­ley’s school. Each teacher runs two a week, in­clud­ing the usual sus­pects such as drama, foot­ball, model mak­ing and science.

But this term there’s also a new ac­tiv­ity: a farm club. It’s the brain­child of teacher Dan Lester and par­ent Jo Broadbent, who runs a small­hold­ing near York with her hus­band David.

“Mr Lester” is a farmer’s son whose broad shoul­ders and shovel-like hands bear wit­ness to his up­bring­ing.

“Af­ter col­lege I taught in Amer­ica and got a bee in my bon­net about the way chil­dren there are wrapped up in cot­ton wool,” he says. “I was de­ter­mined not to be part of that mol­ly­cod­dling cul­ture and it’s all credit to our head­teacher, Alex Donaldson, for let­ting us give the chil­dren this field-to-fork ex­pe­ri­ence. He calls me his di­rec­tor of dung.”

To­gether with the Broad­bents, he has put to­gether a six-week course at the Min­ster School, York, an in­de­pen­dent day school for chil­dren aged from three to 13. The first meet­ing was spent at the Broadbent fam­ily small­hold­ing, col­lect­ing eggs and putting them into the in­cu­ba­tor. Mem­bers re­turned three weeks later to see the chicks hatch. There has also been a chance to bot­tle­feed lambs, a visit to a potato farm, where the chil­dren made crisps, and, on the day I joined them, a trip to a farm rear­ing free-range pigs and High­land cat­tle.

The only par­ent present is Wendy Tay­lor, whose son Ni­cholas wanted to come af­ter hear­ing about the club from his big brother Andrew.

“He wanted me to come along for a bit of moral sup­port as he wasn’t sure it would be for him,” says Mrs Tay­lor. “But he’s lov­ing it; his face says it all. We’ve never been to a proper work­ing farm be­fore. To be hon­est, I wish I could come again next week.”

Lester adds that Andrew, nor­mally quiet in class, hasn’t stopped ask­ing the farmer ques­tions. “He’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent boy,” he says. “It makes you re­alise that the ben­e­fits aren’t just learn­ing about an­i­mals, food and the coun­try­side. They run much deeper.”

Nine-year-old Toby tells me he used to do recorder club be­fore dash­ing off to vol­un­teer to push a wheel­bar­row full of hay. Eight year-old Ge­orgina frets whether the fer­rets kill peo­ple, while her class­mate Ben cack­les that he can “speak chicken lan­guage”. Need­less to say, all his new feath­ered friends flap a hasty re­treat. Alone, he de­clares it a good job his mother is used to wash­ing muddy rugby kits.

“Do you know?” he says, sud­denly all earnest. “Farm club is bet­ter than school, even bet­ter than rugby. It’s bet­ter than any­thing.”

The chil­dren’s re­ac­tion is no sur­prise to the Broad­bents. “When my sons have new friends to play we smile when they ar­rive weighed down with com­puter games,” says Mrs Broadbent. “It’s al­ways the same. When­ever their par­ents come to col­lect them the games are un­touched in the fields. I knew farm club would work and I am keen to ex­pand the idea.

“It’s just a cry­ing shame that so many farm­ers are fright­ened to let chil­dren visit be­cause of red tape.”

The club has been hailed by the in­dus­try-led char­ity Farm­ing and Coun­try­side Ed­u­ca­tion (FACE), which is launch­ing, with Gov­ern­ment back­ing, the Year of Food and Farm­ing in the next school year. Prince Charles is to be the cam­paign’s pa­tron.

FACE is par­tic­u­larly im­pressed with the way the York club con­cludes with a be­hind-the-scenes visit to a su­per­mar­ket, putting ev­ery­thing the chil­dren have learnt in con­text.

Janet Hick­in­bot­tom, the char­ity’s ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cer, agrees with Mrs Broadbent that health and safety leg­is­la­tion makes farm­ers un­will­ing to host vis­its.

“We’re work­ing to bring down bar­ri­ers and re­place them with sen­si­ble risk man­age­ment,” she says. “There’s a train­ing scheme in place, sub­sidised by Defra, for farm­ers to get to grips with school vis­its. It’s not nearly as much of a headache as they might imag­ine. We should all take no­tice of this scheme in York. It’s im­pos­si­ble to put a value on the way it per­son­alises food, help­ing chil­dren to make the link be­tween an­i­mals on the farm and prod­ucts on their plate.

“We also need to change peo­ple’s per­cep­tion that farm­ing is an oc­cu­pa­tion only for those who aren’t very aca­demic. In to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment, agri­cul­ture can be a highly skilled ca­reer choice.”

But back to the visit. All too soon, the chil­dren are giv­ing a fi­nal shout of “sausages” (there’s no sen­ti­men­tal­ity when the fate of the an­i­mals is ex­plained) at the pho­tog­ra­pher.

As we leave, Dun­can Turn­bull, the young farmer who showed us round, shouts “Hang on. One more thing” and dis­ap­pears into the barn to get some fer­tiliser bags to save the mini bus’s up­hol­stery on the jour­ney home.

Jo and David Broadbent are happy to talk to peo­ple in­ter­ested in set­ting up their own farm club. email them at Brdb­firtree­farm@aol.com. For fur­ther de­tails about the Min­ster School, visit www.min­ster.york.sch.uk.

Find out more about the Year of Food and Farm­ing at www.face-on­line.org.uk.

Have I got moos for you: Henry Hud­son vis­its High­land cat­tle with his school’s farm club

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