School farms give children a chance to observe the natural cycles of growth and reproduction in all their glory - and provide valuable lessons across the curriculum, writes David Newnham.
John Rimmer carries a snapshot in his head. It has been there for two decades, but when he speaks of it, you know the image has lost none of its resonance. "It was my first day here," he says, "and I was strolling around when I saw some piglets being born. About 20 youngsters were watching. They were interested, they were learning and they were enthusiastic.
"That was a typical experience. When you walk down there, you'll see. It just hits you."
By "down there", John Rimmer means down on the farm - the two hectares of pastures and plots, of orchards and glasshouses, milking parlours and "mothering-up pens" that make a visit to Oathall community college, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, reminiscent of a trip to Ambridge.
Mr Rimmer, the college's head, says walk down there at the crack of dawn any day of the week and you will see some of the school's 1,400 11 to 16-year-old students already hard at work, cleaning out prize-winning ewes or feeding pedigree cattle. They'll be there at weekends, too, while in the holidays, you might find them taking part in a sponsored pig wash, or preparing a particularly fine sow for a day of glory at the county show.
And if all that raw enthusiasm doesn't hit you, come back in the evening, when a local youth group is mucking in, or when adults from a wood-carving class are trying to capture the precise, quizzical angle of a bantam's cocked head.
"I see everyone here, from three-year-olds to 73-year-olds," says head of the farm unit Howard Wood. "That's one of the nice things about my job." A former rural science teacher whose speciality was swept aside by the national curriculum, it was Howard Wood who John Rimmer entrusted with the job of transforming the little farm that had so impressed him on his first day at Oathall - from a relic of the Second World War "Dig for Victory" campaign into a modern educational resource.
So successful was this transformation that when the farm was threatened by a funding crisis, it found no less a champion than the Prince of Wales.
It happened a couple of years back, when changes in the way local authorities fund their schools convinced West Sussex County Council that it had no choice but to withdraw its annual grant of pound;23,000. Faced with certain closure of what had become a resource for the whole community, people from Haywards Heath and surrounding villages inundated the council with protest. Then an Oathall student, fearing for his NVQ course in general agriculture, had the bright idea of writing to Prince Charles.
"One can only speculate on the prince's intervention," says Howard Wood. But the upshot was that the council found a way to reinstate the grant in full.
More significantly, perhaps, the incident marked the beginning of a period of discussion between the Government and parties that believe hands-on experience of farming and horticulture should be an essential ingredient of every child's education in the 21st century.
While Howard Wood spoke with Education Secretary David Blunkett and received visits from Department for Education and Employment officials, John Rimmer was invited to the Prince's estate at Highgrove, to share his vision.
"I made the point," says the head, "that every school should have some form of horticultural or agricultural unit. It doesn't have to be a farm like this. It could be a greenhouse, some small animals - even a window-box. But children need to be able to develop an affinity with nature.
"I'm not pushing the Countryside Alliance here. I'm saying that we are all citizens of the world, and we've got to do what we can to protect the environment of the world. And if we understand it, we're more motivated to protect it."
The farm at Oathall enables 20 Year 10 and 11 students to take an NVQ course in livestock production. Some students go on to agricultural college and others make it to vet school. Ten per cent of pupils are members of the school's young farmers club (they take prizes from under the noses of professional farmers at agricultural shows), and around 65 work on the farm before and after school on a rota basis. But turning out farmers is not what the unit is all about.
"It's like having a library," says Howard Wood. "It enlivens and enriches. We say: 'Here's a resource - let's use it. Let's feed it into as many lessons and other school activities as we can.'" A maths class at Oathall will collect data on the birthrate of lambs. "Then students will go away with the information and interrogate it. Later, they will come back to me and tell me what I should be doing - for instance, mating the ewes with a particular ram which they found produced the heaviest lambs."
At every turn, it's the same story. Science students study control systems for the automatic heating, lighting and ventilating of greenhouses. Geographers compare the unit with a farm in Egypt. Creative writing classes milk the animals for inspiration, while IT students develop word-processing skills by producing booklets for visitors. As for the art department . . . well, a glance at the pictures on any classroom wall says it all.
"Every child at the school is involved in some way or another," says John Rimmer. "The farm is only one of our strengths, but it is our biggest single success story."
It's a story that can be heard with variations at any number of the state sector's 111 school farms. Oathall produces meat on a modest scale. The animals are slaughtered and butchered locally, with the meat returned to be sold through the school. But while this is enthusiastically purchased by staff and parents, sales just about cover the cost of keeping the animals. Redborne upper school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, on the other hand, made pound;8,000 last financial year from sales of produce, including meat and vegetables. Redborne is effectively running a commercial working farm.
Ralph Rayner has been running the unit there for 30 years, and is an old hand at mustering an eager workforce at lambing time. Recently he has been expanding the market garden operation, and with farm shops closing in the area, the unit is finding no shortage of customers.
Mr Rayner runs taster sessions for Year 9 pupils in February, "just before option choices". Then, in Years 10 and 11, students who like the taste of farming can select Science: rural, a full GCSE option which they can pick up in addition to double science.
This year, Redborne also gained approval from City and Guilds for two NVQs - in general agricultural and commercial horticulture - with NVQ levels 2 and 3 in livestock production to follow.
"Students get involved in the whole range of jobs those NVQs cover," says Ralph Rayner. These include handling livestock, caring for them, cleaning them out "and watching them breeding - at both ends of the process". The commercial nature of the unit also familiarises them with many aspects of business.
"In each year group of around 360, just over 60 students would do a course of some description down here," says Mr Rayner. And for those who find study difficult and formal qualifications difficult to obtain, the unit can teach key skills in context.
Circumscribed as its activities must be by all the health checks and safety stipulations that regulate any industrial operation, the farm represents an ideal introduction to the world outside the school gates.
"When you move an animal, you have to fill the book in," says Ralph Rayner. "It's all teaching points."
For Ian Eggington-Metters, director of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, it's an argument that cannot be made too forcibly. "You can teach every national curriculum subject using a farm," he says. "And the excitement of learning in a way that doesn't involve sitting at a desk is something to which all pupils should have access."
But he also believes school farms have even more to offer children and society than key skills and a way into the curriculum.
"People are increasingly divorced from where their food comes from," he says. "that includes teachers. It's not surprising that they find it difficult to use food farming or even countryside issues in the classroom when the majority of them have zero experience.
"When you go into the teachers' training colleges, you find that something like half have never been on a farm. So when the Brazilian government sends out a box of materials with satellite photographs and all the information you need to teach about a rainforest, there's a temptation to go for that rather than something more local.
"It's not surprising, therefore, that a generation comes out understanding nothing about where its food comes from."
The federation became involved with school farms some years ago, at a time when heads were under financial pressure to close even those units that had survived the demise of rural science as an exam subject.
"At the same time," says Ian Eggington-Metters, "some city farm education workers were making direct links with the teachers in school farms, and they were learning from each other. We undertook feasibility studies of school farms, and worked with groups that were looking for suitable sites to start community-managed farms."
The result was that school farms began including one or more representatives of the local community in their management, and several farms appeared that were hybrids between purely school establishments and community-managed city farms.
"In Hull, for instance, as a result of that study, a school has leased some surplus land for use as a community farm," says Ian Eggington-Metters. "That school now has direct access to many times more resources on its doorstep than it had before."
In July this year, David Blunkett let it be known that he was sympathetic to the idea of paying for more schools to start up farms and allotments, provided they could come up with convincing plans for managing and exploiting the facilities. "I am prepared to provide seed-corn money for schools that come up with a proper plan," he said. "The more that people are reconnected with nature and realise there's more to life than urban sprawl, the better." A decision was promised for this autumn, and a DfEE spokesman confirms that an announcement will be made "in due course".
He continues: "We're considering how we can help schools make more use of city farms as a curriculum resource.So we're consulting organisations with an interest in this area and will be reporting to the secretary of state."
Having been involved in those consultations, Ian Eggington-Metters is cautiously optimistic. "Potentially, the support will be even broader than just school farms," he says. "But it would be silly to speculate at this stage."
Meanwhile, down at Oathall Farm, two dozen boys and girls are watching Jude, a champion large white sow, give birth to another litter. "They see life and they see death here," says Howard Wood. "We don't hide anything from them."