Where the class is greener
Sarah Todd visits a school at which children get close to the countryside
‘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