Curriculum - Sheep thrills
Despite the cold days and long nights, Bev James is always glad of this time of year. The farm is quiet, giving her a chance to catch up on admin - until the end of the month at least, then it's March; the lambing season. It is the peak time for visitors.
Mrs James is farm education co-ordinator at Warriner Farm, part of Warriner School in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. The 120-acre working farm is the school's purpose-built educational resource. Besides experiencing aspects of farm life, Warriner pupils have staged plays here, translated farm guides into French and Spanish and spent geography lessons ageing hedgerows.
The farm also receives visits from school and pre-school groups across the region so she will soon be spending every day hosting groups on the farm.
"School life would be a poorer place without this farm, and farm visits in general," says Mrs James. "It's not something you can measure. Children don't play outdoors as much as they used to, so they learn an enormous amount on a visit. Anything you do in the curriculum you can do in a hands-on way in the farm. There are so many ways we can bring things to life."
But the combination of farm and children is not without significant risks. Last August, Godstone Farm in Surrey experienced a serious E. coli outbreak. On September 12 the farm was closed and 36 cases were reported to the Health Protection Agency. Twelve children under 10 years old were hospitalised.
Three other farms shut their doors as a precaution: Horton Park Children's Farm in Epsom, sister farm to Godstone, White Post Farm in Nottinghamshire and World of Country Life in Exmouth.
"After the outbreak some farms reported drops of about 50 per cent (in visitors); others saw significantly less than that," says Gary Richardson, chief executive of the Countryside Foundation that runs Farms for Schools (FFS), whose remit includes ensuring the safety and standards of school farm trips. "A large proportion of the drop did come from schools." But that isn't the whole story; some FFS events saw numbers shoot up.
The E. coli O157 bacteria lives in the gut of animals such as cattle, sheep or goats as well as wild birds. Direct contact with animals or animal faeces is all that is needed for humans to become infected. While the consequences of infection can be serious, the risks can be mitigated through good personal hygiene, something that has long been enforced at farms open to visitors.
Farms were taking precautions, says Mr Richardson. "There were handwashing facilities and reminder notices. (The outbreak) was not the case of a rogue farm just not taking care. People were doing as much as they could."
Despite receiving up to 4,000 children annually, Warriner has never had to report a sick child, says Mrs James. "All groups are supervised and I always oversee handwashing at the end of the visit. Preventing E. coli is really about an awful lot of common sense. That's the bottom line."
Horton Park has never experienced an E. coli outbreak but shut following the incident at Godstone to take further precautions, a spokesperson explains: "As well as installing additional handwashing facilities, the farm was divided into separate areas: eating; look and see, where children can't touch the animals; and the look and touch area, where children can come into contact with the animals. Each area is clearly marked so visitors can decide where to go."
Beyond strict hygiene and designated areas, any school visit begins with a risk assessment that takes into consideration the activities planned. At Warriner, all visits begin with a teacher's pre-visit.
"We go through the sort of questions that are likely to be asked and how they brief people beforehand, letting them know what letters they should be sending out to parents and how they should talk to the children beforehand," Mrs James explains.
"We have a chat with all the kids at the start of every visit outlining what people can and can't do." The process is a reassuring one both for the teacher and the parents.
Kathryn Wheeler, a teacher at Banbury School in Oxfordshire, took her group of food technology pupils to Warriner. Aged between 11 and 16, they followed instructions closely and no parents expressed concern at the visit, although this was before the Godstone outbreak. Nevertheless, her precautions were thorough. E. coli was discussed at the pre-visit and a risk assessment was carried out.
Post-Godstone, Mrs Wheeler remains unfazed at the thought of managing a farm visit's associated risks. "I follow procedures strictly for off-site learning experiences and would make a pre-visit. Then I would complete the risk assessment, sending it to our headteacher before going ahead."
Jane Wilmot, a teacher at Malcolm Sargent School in Stamford, Lincolnshire, doesn't believe teachers are likely to be put off future visits by last year's outbreak. "I wouldn't think it is a worry. There are so many guidelines and we are ultra cautious."
For the past five years the school has taken pupils to the Beaver Castle Estate in Leicestershire, which includes a farm. "All the years I have been (visiting), handwash was available and the children used antibacterial handwash after they touched anything."
Besides, says Mrs Wilmot, teachers have guidelines and advice to fall back on. "The local authority has lots of guidelines in place and, if it's a farm visit, the National Farmers' Union and other farm organisations have the same guidelines. They all have suggested risk assessments to back up teachers."
In an era defined by caution and increasing legislation, farm visits will no doubt remain a source of anxiety for some, but the farming community is adamant that these visits remain undiluted and part of the school experience.
"Many inner-city children, and some rural ones, don't have a connection to where their food comes from, how animals are looked after or who is responsible for managing the countryside," says Mr Richardson.
"The big buzzwords currently are climate change and how the environment is managed. Farmers are key to that. Farm visits will hopefully create a generation that is more informed about their energy and food resources and about the people who manage the environment on their behalf."
Mrs James agrees, adding that Warriner's hands-on approach is essential. "Try to explain to a four-year-old that some animals have rough tongues that help them to pick up their food and they will have forgotten by lunchtime. But give them a handful of silage to feed to a cow so that the cow will stretch out her tongue and lick their fingers to get to it, and they will never forget."
Discussing the outbreak, what is striking is the pragmatic matter-of-factness expressed by the farming community. All are fastidious about health and safety but acknowledge that a degree of risk will always remain.
Although some media coverage was hyperbolic, many teachers and members of the public kept calm and carried on. Mr Richardson points to the staunch support Godstone received from its regular visitors, and the reassurance from teachers.
"We rang all the schools coming to our events asking if they were still happy to come and one of the teachers said to me, 'Look, the animals have got more chance of catching something from my kids than they have from the animals'."
Schools took a strong view of the risk assessment, he says. "They looked at the procedures we and farms had in place to minimise the risk of infection and they took a view of it. I think it was a well-balanced view from schools, parents, public and press. They looked at the venues and what they were doing and took precautions accordingly."
From foot and mouth to avian flu to BSE, last year's outbreak was just one of many disasters to have struck farmers. But Mr Richardson expects them to bounce back, as always. Despite a slow start to 2010, thanks to the cold weather, FFS is already reporting a rise in its visitor numbers.
"I don't know any other industry which would give up a day's work to host schoolchildren, communicate with their teachers and to invite them, effectively, into their home. Something very special happens when you allow children to explore and investigate. It is a buzz and that is why farmers, thankfully, still do this."
- Before you go, ensure that pupils understand the Countryside Code. Educational materials are available at www.countryside access.gov.uk.
- Compile an information sheet for parents and carers well in advance, outlining the visit aims and benefits. Include details on how to prepare, from what to wear to staying safe.
- It is best for the event organiser to arrange a pre-visit: this gives teachers the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the site and discuss the event's timings, emergency procedures, contact information and health and safety with site staff.
- Rain? No lambs being born today? Ensure you have anticipated every potential hitch. Make detailed contingency plans ahead of time.
- For guidance on writing a risk assessment, visit the HSE website at ww.hse.gov.uk or talk to your school's educational visits co-ordinator.