The daily rind

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Jill Parkin visits Oathall school where parents bring home the bacon and pupils castrate the lambs on its farm

The conversation in the pig barn took a personal turn as Howard Wood looked at the headteacher and said: "Mating time again. Time to introduce you to the boar next week."

An unblushing Jill Wilson sighed: "It's all very demanding, isn't it?"

It is the kind of exchange that happens quite often at Oathall community college, a West Sussex mixed comprehensive school with its own farm, where by tradition the porkers are named after heads of department.

The day I visited, the head of design and technology, a saddleback boar called Phil, was disporting himself in a paddock with Kim, the head of religious education. Kim was bearing it all with saintly patience. And it could have been worse: Oathall produces bacon as well as dear little pink piglets.

"Oh, yes," says Howard, head of farm. "I like a bit of fat with my meat - a traditional breed such as a saddleback. But we also cross-breed with large whites to get a more popular, leaner cut. Our pigs come back sliced and shrink-wrapped. The children get used to that quite quickly."

Behind all this sizzling stuff is a serious purpose - a desire to teach children about the food they eat and the land that produces it. Oathall, in Haywards Heath, West Sussex, is one of only about 65 school farms in the country. Like many of them, it has hung on and evolved from the dig for victory campaign of the Second World War.

"For me, that's one of the great opportunities we have lost along with Tomlinson - the chance to extend what we have here to our high achievers.

Everyone should know about our food and our land, but like so much hands-on stuff it tends to be limited to the children who do NVQs," says Howard, who has been at Oathall for 29 years.

Hands-on indeed. We are in the barn, admiring a few lambs and a Limousin-Ayrshire cross calf, when 15-year-old Kathryn Henderson mentions the tail-docking and castration she has done. Tail docking is one thing, but an NVQ in castrating little woolly lambs?

"It's fine," she says. "They don't feel a thing."


"Look here," says Howard, detaching a tong-like instrument from the wall of the barn. "Give me your finger."

Obviously the answer is no. I am a good deal tougher than a baa-lamb, and I need my 10 fingers. But Kathryn looks a little contemptuous and shows me a happy black lamb with a red rubber band around its scrotum.

Meantime Howard has attached a similar band to the tongs and opened them wide. Over a reluctant finger it goes and feels slightly snug, nothing more.

In spite of Howard's gloom about Tomlinson, all 1,400 pupils at Oathall, where almost one in six has special educational needs, use the farm in some way as part of their national curriculum studies in science, maths, information and communications technology, art, humanities and the rest.

There are also NVQ courses in agriculture and horticulture in Years 10 and 11.

Howard has six Y11 students doing a tractor-driving course at Brinsbury, the agricultural campus of Chichester college in West Sussex. And the school's Young Farmers' Club has 100 members, many of whom work on the farm before and after school, during the holidays and at the weekends.

The major maths link is through a statistics project in which Y7 pupils investigate the growth of lambs born on the farm. They compare several factors, including birth weight, age of ewe, breed of tup (father) and number of lambs born. They learn how to catch, hold, sex and weigh the lambs, and they gather eight weeks of figures which they use to create a computer database. In class they then learn how to interpret their findings and test their own hypotheses.

Oathall, a beacon school designated a specialist college for science and visual arts with a rural dimension, is also a resource for others, providing material for teachers as well as visits to the farm trail for nurseries, playgroups, junior and secondary schools.

"You should see some of these great big Y11 boys taking a couple of three-year-olds by the hand. We train them to do the group tours and they flourish with the responsibility," says Howard.

Four webcams in the farrowing house and barn allow other schools to look in on suckling pigs and lambing sheep. The school farm shop sells meat packs, flowers, eggs from the Oathall hens, apples and the inevitable by-product of all this - loads of manure.

The farm has a two-hectare site at the school, with 10 further hectares elsewhere for grazing and hay production. As well as paid pupil help with everything from mucking-out to bee-keeping, it has two full-time technicians. It also has links with nearby Wakehurst Place, a satellite of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, as well as with agricultural colleges in West and East Sussex.

"We cover the controversial issues like battery farming, organic food and food miles. We cover the business side as well as the ecology side," says Howard. "What I'm doing is presenting them with the arguments so they can make their choices with some theory behind them.

"Yes, we have children coming in at Y7 who don't know where their food comes from, how things are grown, where milk comes from and all that. But after a while, they know that they can say goodbye to their pig on Monday morning and on Friday their parents could be buying it in a pack."

When she came to the school, Jill Wilson knew nothing about farming beyond what she had picked up from The Archers. Now, not only does she have a pig namesake, she also has a school with a special ethos. Thanks to the farm, children can see that what they do makes a difference.

"As well as the curriculum and community links, the farm works well with what we believe in as a school," says Mrs Wilson, who also chairs the National Teacher Research Panel. "It supports inclusion; it builds self-esteem; it develops a sense of responsibility for living things and for the environment."

The school has also used its farm to develop a specialised vocational route (SVR) for key stage 4 pupils.

"We provide a realistic workplace experience," says Howard. "Our students spend one day a week on the farm, with the rest of their subjects timetabled around this. They are also expected to work there on an extra-curricular basis."

The SVR works particularly well with those disaffected with exam courses.

They work in small groups and so improve their social skills through teamwork.

"The aim is to provide young people with the opportunity to succeed in a work-related environment," says Howard. "If you prepare an animal for a show and it does well, it's very gratifying."

Oathall shows its livestock at agricultural shows and often picks up prizes. Prince Charles, a friend of the school since his visit in 2002, looks out for the Oathall stand when on his Farmer Charles summer show tours.

The farm is a treasured part of the school and undoubtedly is an enviable resource for the makers and doers among the pupils. As the Hebden black chickens peck about in the yard, Kathryn considers what she likes about her NVQ work on the farm.

"It's better than a normal lesson," she says, "because you get to do real things."

And Howard clearly enjoys his job. "I don't do stress," he says, leaning over a pig pen and watching a suckling sow. "You know, all the piglets have their own teat that they go back to each time. And when they've finished feeding, they come round to the sow's head and touch her nose with their nose, as if they're saying 'thank you, mum'."

We both consider this as the piglets wriggle into position. Somehow it seems as things should be.

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