Ryan Thorpe, 14, is sharpening the end of a wooden stake with a small axe under the watchful eye of his tutor. He is clearly enjoying himself as he carefully slices off strips of bark to reveal the creamy white wood underneath. The acrid smoke of a wood fire fills the air while other boys nearby are hammering another stake into the twiggy branches of a blackthorn and hazel hedge. They start binding the hedge with sticks of hazelwood. The boys' cheeks are rosy from the biting wind and their hands are frozen, but they are laughing and joking.
They look like a group of boys having fun on a scout camp, but these are pupils who've been allowed out of school to work on a farm in East Sussex, and they are learning the ancient art of hedgelaying. They are all concentrating hard and are bright-eyed and enthusiastic, a stark contrast to their attitude in school. Some of these boys are on the verge of permanent exclusion; others have been in trouble for fighting and truanting; some have severe learning difficulties. Most of them feel like failures at school.
Ryan doesn't like his school. "I stopped working and I was getting into all sorts of trouble, but now I come here and I like the farm," he says. "I like hedgelaying, and I like feeding the pigs and cows and cleaning their pens. The teachers are better here; they are more laidback, nicer people.
They don't tell us off; they treat us with respect."
Respect is central to the ethos at Ivyland Farm, which is attached to a training centre at Plumpton agricultural college. Simon Bishop, the centre's head, started the Schools Release programme 10 years ago. The course is aimed at disaffected students aged 14 to 16 from 13 schools who attend the farm for between one and three days a week and are taught a range of outdoor skills including how to look after animals, drive a tractor, lay a hedge, make fences and grow vegetables.
For Simon Bishop, the farm is a "classroom without walls". The land covers 250 acres and is set in an area of outstanding natural beauty of small fields, rolling hills and woods on the High Weald. Lessons are held in barns which are heated by wood-burning stoves; the students cut up the logs in the fields, load up the tractor and trailer and bring them back to the workshop, the kind of routine jobs they excel at. As Simon Bishop says:
"These students have a lot of problems and have often been labelled useless. We try to get over their negative self-images by building up their self-esteem with small targets, such as collecting the eggs or mucking out the pig pens."
As the students get better at routine farm work their confidence rises, and they start to feel good about themselves. "We give them a safety net and let them bounce back up, and then we set targets for the future," says Simon Bishop, whose aim is to inspire the students to join a full-time course at Plumpton college where they can do an NVQ, a BTec first or national diploma, or, in time, a foundation degree in land-based studies.
And it works: more than 60 per cent stay on at 16.
Philippa Gasson, deputy headteacher of Robertsbridge community college, says: "Our students who have joined Ivyland have benefited enormously from the experience. Some have been almost completely disengaged from mainstream education but have rediscovered their enthusiasm for learning when on the farm courses."
Nick Newman, 16, started on the Schools Release programme and is now at Plumpton college doing a three-year national diploma in agriculture; he also does work experience on a local farm and feels that farming has changed his life. "Without Ivyland I would have got chucked out of school and I'd never have gone to Plumpton," he says. "I don't know what I'd be doing now; I'd probably just be lying on my bed and I'd be totally bored."
Des Lambert, principal of Plumpton college, believes part of the secret of success is that there's no time to be bored. "This is a super environment where children can lose the pressure that caused them to go off the rails at school. We have children from difficult family backgrounds, and we can catch them before it is too late. We motivate them and engage them in all our farm activities."
Sam Kirimli, 17, who attended a local school and is now working at Ivyland, agrees: "I didn't get on at school. I was bored and I got bullied. I like everything about the farm and I want to go to Plumpton to do a course in conservation management. I'd be lost without this course. I would never have found myself."
LIFE ON THE FARM
Ivyland Farm is attached to the Netherfield Centre, an education and training centre for Plumpton College in East Sussex. Ivyland offers various programmes to young students aged 14-19 and a series of courses for 19 and above. The Schools Release programme offers underachieving and disaffected school pupils aged 14-16 the chance to attend from between one and three days a week. The farm has:
* Twenty-five Sussex cows that calve outside in the spring and summer.
Calves are naturally weaned, staying with their mothers until the next calf is born the following year.
* 130 breeding ewes which lamb inside barns in January and February. The ewes and lambs are turned out into sheltered fields to graze spring grass and stay with their mothers until sold or are weaned in late summer.
* Two Saddleback and two Large Black sows which produce piglets throughout the year, staying with their mothers for at least seven weeks before being weaned.
* Free-range hens that lay eggs, which are sold from the farm.
* A butchery which cures its own bacon and produces its own sausages.
Ivyland Farm, Netherfield, Battle, East Sussex. Tel: 01424 838620; www.plumpton.ac.uk