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A drive in the country

If the schools cannot come to the farm, the farmers must go to the school, writes Stephen Hoare

Business links in towns and big cities could not be healthier. In setting up these links, many schools look for big-name sponsors, which are all eager to invite schoolchildren for visits or send out educational packs. And all are well publicised for their efforts.

But what of the countryside? Farming suffered from a bad press even before foot and mouth disease put a stop to school visits. Janet Godfrey of the Women's Food and Farming Union, says: "Teachers generally don't know much about the countrysideother than what they read in the papers or see in the TV news. They only get a narrow picture - of farmers throwing pesticides on to the land or being cruel to animals. Farming is just not like that at all."

To dispel these myths, Mrs Godfrey, who organises talks in primary schools, has trained 120 speakers - all farmers' wives - to support the curriculum around the UK. In happier days, she would bring a lamb and a set of scales with her to demonstrate to children how it put on weight. These days she weighs grain instead. She is keen to debunk farming's "green welly" image in school visits that relate to issues such as food production, healthy eating and the environment.

A farm speaker is the next best thing to a farm visit and may be a school's only chance to forge a link with business.

"Ideally, we'd like children on the farm but practically it's a lot easier for schools to get us in to visit," she says. "We can slot into lesson times, whereas a farm visit takes half a day, even without the journey."

Talk of a rural-town divide is not exaggerated, but Mrs Godfrey claims that ignorance about farming is widespread - even in rural communities. "Of all the children in my village school, not one comes from a farming background," she says.

The reason? With mechanisation and large-scale factory farming, fewer people are employed on the land. Villages have become dormitories for nearby towns and cities.

Of course, the countryside is not all about farming. Land use covers a multitude of organisations, with many offering business links. There are national parks, forestry plantations, bird sanctuaries, country estates, waterways, reservoirs, quarrying, sand and gravel extraction, and open-cast mining.

On health and safety grounds, it is unlikely that school parties would be allowed on to a working quarry, but many are running land-reclamation schemes in which the history of quarrying is explained. And then there is industry - cereals, flour milling, sugar beet, dairy products, even seed and agro-chemicals. Rural industries can offer some excellent curriculum resources.

St Ivel's yogurt factory at Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire gets many requests for school visits. The firm is particularly helpful to local schools. Production must always take precedence over visits - school parties often have to be planned months in advance.

Toni Hensby, St Ivel's communications manager, says: "Because of food hygiene and health and safety, we only take pupils of 14 and above. We take a lot of trouble over visits and pupils are taken around the plant in groups of about six by a senior manager. They are all kitted out in white coats, hats and hairnets."

After the foot and mouth epidemic, farm visits are expectedto return to normal by the autumn, and many organisations are working to promote business links. The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food sponsors Maff Farmlink, which has more than 1,000 farms on its books, according to DavidBettis, Farmlink's national programmesco-ordinator.

It was established 10 years ago and its original aim was to point out to schoolchildren the damage to crops caused by trespass, but these days farm visits are more concerned to teach the national curriculum - issues of land use and the rural economy feed into subjects such as science and geography. Townies have a muddled view of the countryside that only visits can correct, says Mr Bettis. "You still get children asking: 'How many beefburgers can you get out of that cow, mister?'".

The National Farmers' Union has an education officer and eight regionally based co-ordinators. Last year, it tried to promote visits as well as a series of twilight presentations for teachers around the country. These were aimed at explaining how farm visits could be linked to the curriculum. As an inducement, the NFU ran a competition that offered 20 prizes: vouchers worth pound;100 to help schools to pay for transport, green wellies and waterproofs for children. Kate Bennett, the union's national education co-ordinator, says: "A lot of inner-city schools are not well equipped, and it costs a lot to hire a minibus so we thought we'd help out."

Farm visits may have been deferred to the autumn, but, for now, a lot of schools are visiting the NFU's horticulture members - nurseries and garden centres.

"We've just produced a horticulture pack called Living Colour - it's written by teachers for teachers," says Mrs Bennett. "So there's never been a better time to visit."

A lot can be gained from a visit to the local nursery. Living Colour lists a range of activities such as leaf rubbings, plotting temperature, seed investigation and designing a germination chamber - all of which cover muliple areas of the curriculum.

At the other end of the scale, the Eden Project at St Austell, Cornwall, claims to be the biggest greenhouse in the world. The project offers a range of events and workshops for schools related to eco-systems, the rainforest and the great plant explorers. Another project, Learning with Landscapes, has some interesting business links with the likes of Exxon Mobil, which sponsors schools near its offices in Leatherhead and with big refineries such as Fawley, near Southampton.

Before the recent restrictions on farm visits, according to the NFU, the most popular destinations for schools were open farms - those run as educational centres, with admission charges, coach parks, toilet blocks, teaching rooms and viewing galleries. City farms such as London's Mudchute and Spitalfields show what can be achieved with a tiny plot of urban wasteland and a few animals. Working farms are much more of a challenge for the visitor. There are concerns about health and safety in many schools.

But David Bettis of Maff Farmlink is keen to offer reassurance. "Fears over E-coli and salmonella are generally unfounded, but we are up-front about the issue. Hygiene and safety play an important part in personal, social and health education, and it is important to ensure activities are appropriate to the age group you are working with."

Stephen Hoare

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