Young agricultural experts are thin on the ground nowadays, but all that could change, says Ben Aldiss, if farming programmes are encouraged
Can you identify the pictures on this page? If you had trouble, you are not alone - 99 per cent of pupils have not got a clue (*for answers see footnote). Yet all these plants and animals are integral to modern arable farming. So two years ago I set up a scheme aimed at 13-year-olds, called the School and Farm Wildlife Prog-ramme (SFWP), in an attempt to address the lack of knowledge of the British countryside.
With their increased emphasis on farming, the new GCSE science specifications are helping, but there is still a tendency for teachers to ignore agriculture when giving careers advice.
As Tim Papworth, a Norfolk farmer, told me: "We often get local schools sending pupils here for work experience, but unfortunately it is normally a last resort.
"Teachers do not seem to appreciate how technically demanding modern agriculture is these days. If they did, we would be sent more of their top achievers. That is what the countryside really needs."
So how does the programme differ from other excellent schemes putting pupils onto farms? First, by aiming to provide an England-wide, structured approach, geared closely to the curriculum. Secondly, the project provides an in-depth grounding in farming, wildlife and conservation before the farm visit, tailored to that farm. Once there, the pupils are then instructed, not only by the farmer, but also by experts in conservation, agriculture and wildlife.
The programme is popular with both pupils and teachers. Sara Watkins, the head of science at Alderman Peel High School in Wells-next-the-Sea, said:
"I had comments like 'A fantastic day for Year 9!' and we have also had a few pupils asking about career paths and courses."
Dr Angela Lawn, head of science at Knights Templar School in Baldock, Hertfordshire, said: "Teaching environmentally sustainable farming in the classroom can never match seeing it for real. Not only was the content and itinerary superb, but the pupils loved talking to the farmer.
"He was able to provide a personal touch to the discussion of balancing the needs of agriculture to feed the population of the future while recognising the responsibility we have towards the environment."
With the Government's push to get schools involved in more fieldwork I could see a new opportunity: A-level. Farmers and teachers involved in the pilot commented that, beneficial though the Year 9 focus was, the potential for sixth formers was even greater.
Using their local farm for ecology fieldwork has many advantages. Teachers of subjects such as biology and geography will be able to give pupils a meaningful practical experience at minimal cost throughout the year.
Interested schools will be matched to a suitable farm by David Bird, my colleague, and farm conservation advisers. Preliminary material will then be sent for the initial school visit. Pupils will tour most of the site with the farmer and also hear from a conservationist.
Our worksheets will enable teachers to carry out most of the ecological techniques in the A-level specifications. This work can be done at any time, agreed between the school and the farm owner, without the need for further intervention by the farmer.
Not only this, but it can directly benefit the farm - helping monitor bumblebees, butterflies and plants in field margins seeded with wild flowers for instance. For pupils, practical techniques used for a purpose are much more likely to make sense. For the SFWP as a whole, there are big bonuses. With numerous schools collecting similar data and uploading it to a central database via the SFWP website (still under construction), ecological trends can be monitored and schools can use the large datasets for follow-up work.
We are lucky to have backing from some prestigious organisations. The nine regional Science Learning Centres and the National Centre will be able to provide venues for teacher training days and a bid for major funding is being launched through the Royal Entomological Society.
We are optimistic that we will be able to expand from our base in East Anglia. So, if you are interested in being considered for the first year of the A-level SFWP, get in touch
Ben Aldiss teaches biology part-time at Thorpe House School in Norfolk. He can be contacted at The Farmers Conservation Group: www.tfcg.co.uk*1.
wheat, 2. skylark, 3. hawthorn in flower, 4. male brimstone butterfly and 5. sugarbeet.
OCR's 21st century science. It includes the additional applied science single award, with an agriculture and food option.
Half of the marks for this award are gained through the work-related portfolio, part of which involves the students creating a work-related report.
Science Learning Centres:
FACE (Farming and Countryside Education): www.face-online.org.uk.
Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens: www.farmgarden.org.uk.
Farms for Schools:
Farms for City Children:
Countryside Foundation for Education:
The Country Trust:
Real World Learning Campaign: