Breaking new ground

18th May 2007 at 01:00
Getting pupils enthusiastic about farming and the countryside is a lot easier if you close the textbook and open a smallholding. Nick Morrison reports

Courses on managing land are all very well, but unless there is a handy plot nearby, it can be hard to get all those lessons on putting up fences, growing crops and creating wildlife habitats out of the realm of theory.

Even when land is available, it is often an overcrowded corner of a school field, or a site at a distant agricultural college, where pupils spend more time travelling than learning anything useful.

Stradbroke Business and Enterprise College, near Ipswich in Suffolk, overcame the problem by leasing a nearby five-acre site from a farmer. The field had been set aside land, unused for agriculture, but in 18 months has been transformed into a thriving smallholding, complete with pond, vegetable garden and tangles of soft fruit.

The school runs land-based studies courses at the site in conjunction with Otley College, with Year 10 and 11 pupils following either a level 1 course, skills for working life, or the level 2 BTEC in countryside and environment, the equivalent of two top-grade GCSEs.

"It's a 10-minute drive in a minibus so we can maximise the pupils' time there," says Stephen Plume, the school's subject leader for land-based studies. "We're in a rural area, but there has been a decline in local agricultural employment, and key skills are being lost.

"On a very basic level, they learn about planting, weeding and health and safety, and at a higher level, they learn how to develop, cost and build rabbit fencing and build paths."

The courses are proving increasingly popular, attracting roughly 15 pupils in the first year and 30 in the second, a sizeable chunk of the 380 who attend the school. From September, the site will also be used by three local schools that have gone into partnership with Stradbroke: Thomas Mills, Debenham High and Hartismere High.

Pupils from all four schools will study the theoretical parts of the course at Stradbroke. "Because we are a small, rural school, it is important for us to work in collaboration with other schools," says Perry Linsley, Stradbroke's headteacher. "The next year will be the first where we have had a real partnership with other schools for a vocational provision."

A pound;25,000 grant from the European Social Fund has helped pay to set the project up, while Stradbroke pays a peppercorn rent for the field. As part of the agreement with the landowner, the children also helped build a hard-standing car park for the next-door church.

Pupils spend two mornings per week at the site. On one afternoon they have lessons over a link from Otley teachers direct to their classrooms.

David Gifford, lecturer at Otley College, is responsible for delivering the practical elements at the site in Brundish, five miles from Stradbroke. He says much of the early work concentrated on installing the infrastructure, including ponds, paths and fences. "Last year was about creating growing areas, and it has taken a significant amount of work to get it to this stage," he says.

Polytunnels house the young plants, or "plugs", before they are planted out, and mulch matting is used to keep the weeds down, to ensure the pupils don't have to spend all their time weeding. Part of the site is maintained as a nature reserve, to teach the children about managing wildlife habitats.

"All the practical work is done by the pupils, who are learning the skills to set up and run a smallholding," David says. This is the first full growing year, with crops including strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants and Himalayan blackberries, and vegetables including potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and kale.

Pupils can take the produce home, and if there are sufficient quantities, they may sell it at the school's monthly farmers' market. "This may be the beginning of a career for some of them," David says. "Hopefully they will have the enthusiasm to want to work on the land. Even if they don't, they will at least have experienced some of the practical aspects of how the countryside is run, and have an understanding of countryside issues."

Stephen says the project will give the school an advantage in implementing the new specialised diplomas, intended to provide an overall framework for vocational education. They are expected to be introduced from next September.

"This is our second year on the site, and it will give us the opportunity to sort out any problems," he says. "The pupils are seeing it more as a real option, and there is a sense of achievement from eating something they have grown."

Dig it: getting and growing on your own patch

Think locally: might a local farm be able to spare a plot?

Investigate sources of funding.

Don't go it alone: are other schools interested in collaboration?

It's not all about money: can you help out the landowner to keep costs down?

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