Farm school keeps lads on the right track

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
A boys-only state secondary for boarders that operates a professional organic farm has proved a big success with pupils turned off by mainstream education. David Marley reports

All teachers are used to dealing with disruptions in class. But these rarely come in the form of a 600kg cow making a bid for freedom. As Paul Kingston, the farm manager at Brymore School, explains the difference between different cuts of meat, his subject has spotted a gate ajar and is making a break for it.

But the 15-year-old pupils are alert to such events and, with the use of some strong shoulder action and a few yells, they ease the animal back into its pen. Disruption over.

The boys' confidence in muscling around cattle comes from attending a unique school. All 175 pupils at the boys-only state boarding school play an integral part in running a professional-standard organic farm nestled in a rural village near Bridgwater in Somerset. As well as studying regular GCSEs, the boys, who start at 13, study for vocational qualifications in livestock production and horticulture.

While their peers in regular comprehensives are still tucked up in bed, Brymore pupils are on a weekly rota that sees them milking and mucking out from 6.30am, come rain or shine. The same boys, having spent the rest of their day in other classes, are back in the early evening for the second round of milking before getting stuck into their homework, or running, or caving, or dry-skiing, or blacksmithing. Clearly, there isn't a great deal of downtime at Brymore.

First opened in the early 1950s, the school, whose site was used as a US army base during the Second World War, started with 28 boys. It is now known as the only state school in the country where all pupils learn the fundamentals of farm life.

As well as the 30-beef herd, there are 17 dairy cows and varying numbers of sheep, pigs and chickens. Until the end of last term there were also turkeys, although the festive period called an end to their time. In fact, there should have been about 50 of the birds making their way from the school to the Christmas dinner table last month, but local foxes had other ideas and dispatched around 20 of them in a midnight raid some weeks before.

These are just some of the harsh realities of farm life, but there is no sentimentality on the boys' part towards the animals they tend. When the beef herd reaches maturity, the cows are taken to market to be slaughtered, with the pupils satisfied it has been a job well done. The same is true for the 80 piglets that are born on the farm each year.

"It gives what you are doing every day real meaning," says Tom Spencer, a Year 10 pupil. "It's actually a really good experience going to market."

The meat is distributed to farm shops and supermarkets where its organic heritage puts it in the top price brackets. It is too expensive to be used in the school's own kitchen, which is run on a typically tighter budget. The milk is also sold professionally to local firm Yeo Valley for its organic yoghurts. And a stall is set out every Saturday for parents who want to make some purchases when picking up their children.

About half the boys at the school describe themselves as coming from farming backgrounds. In the words of head Malcolm Lloyd, Brymore attracts boys who are not "turned on" by mainstream schools. Many are bored by the traditional academic curriculum in most secondaries. Some have learning difficulties, with dyslexia a common problem. Others have been disruptive in regular schools and want a more hands-on education. And as fast as diplomas might be developed, they will never be able to offer the hands-on experience available on the farm.

"If you are a practical lad, a kinaesthetic learner or just a pain in the backside, you'll find out in Year 7 that mainstream school is often not for you," says Mr Lloyd. "We have a reputation for helping boys with poor literacy and we turn around a few scallywags. But most of the boys here are good lads who were just bored or frustrated in their old schools. They find the atmosphere and curriculum here more stimulating. It's real life. If you don't do it right, the animals could suffer and it can cost us money."

All the boys spend almost two hours a week on the farm, with the same period spent on horticulture and in the workshops. There is also at least an hour a week after school and another session on Saturdays.

Pupils rostered for farm duty remain in schools on Sundays in case they are needed in an emergency. And Year 11 pupils can volunteer to supervise younger boys.

For any 13-year-olds starting at the school, getting their hands on the wheel of a tractor must rank highly, but they do not have to wait long. After a few sessions in the stockyard, they are soon trusted to drive the school's two tractors.

"From day one it is a case of drumming health and safety into them," says Mr Kingston, whose father was a Brymore pupil. "If you are caught between a 600kg cow and a wall, you can be in real trouble. The animals are predictable for 95 per cent of the time, but the lads have to be prepared for the other 5 per cent.

"They learn pretty quickly that if they mess around, they'll get banned from driving the tractors, so that keeps them pretty well disciplined. To be honest, I think there's more danger of one of them getting hurt from chucking the odd potato at each other than from anything to do with farm machinery."

Mr Kingston says some boys never get totally used to the farm, but most - about 70 per cent - achieve NVQ2 in livestock production. Not all them will pursue a farming career. Aidan Child, 17, hopes to join the elite parachute regiment in the army. His friend Andy James, 16, wants to do a farriers' course specialising in hoof care.

On the day The TES visited, the farm was bathed in crisp winter sunshine. Having weighed the cattle, the pupils had gone to other lessons, leaving a peaceful, bucolic scene of cows happily munching on their hay.

But for Mr Kingston it is not always so easy. He is there all year round with three farm technicians, when most of his helpers have gone back home for the holidays.

The farm is not run on strictly commercial lines because of the need to keep pupils busy. The sale of meat, milk and other produce covers feed, replacement stock and vets' fees. And Somerset county council gives subsidies of Pounds 70,000 a year to pay for the farm staff and tractors. Overall, the school costs about Pounds 1,000 per pupil per year more than other state schools.

It accepts 60 pupils from 80 applicants in three year groups. The biggest class has 24 pupils because anything larger hinders the ability to run practical lessons.

Mr Lloyd is keen for his pupils to take responsibility in different areas of school life to boost self-esteem. As chairman of the State Boarding Schools' Association, he believes in its power to build the right ethos. The school has a welcoming atmosphere, with pupils rather than teachers trusted to show prospective parents around.

But despite its success in re-engaging pupils disaffected with mainstream education, Brymore is failing to hit high enough standards, according to the National Challenge scheme. The school's contextual value-added score puts it in the top 10 per cent in the country, but its raw exam results are below the target of 30 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs. This year, 11 per cent of pupils made the benchmark.

Mr Lloyd is proud of the progress his pupils make and happy to take any extra help, but was dismayed at the way the National Challenge was presented.

He has not told his former colleague, the schools minister, Jim Knight, of his displeasure. Mr Knight started his political career as Mayor of Frome, in Somerset, when Mr Lloyd was one of the town councillors.

"I like to describe us as highly successful, but underachieving," he says. "If we hit the 30 per cent benchmark for a couple of years, we'll be told that we're coasting."

Surprisingly, Mr Lloyd is from London and did not have any experience of farm life before he took up his post five years ago.

"People said to me: 'I didn't know you knew anything about farms.' I said: 'I don't, but I don't know anything about Spanish either, and we teach that too.'"

Growing option for vulnerable pupils

Brymore is one of a number of schools that has benefited from renewed government interest in state boarding in recent years.

It was one of the first three schools to receive significant sums of money to improve facilities - in Brymore's case, a Pounds 3.4 million grant to build two new boarding houses, due to open this month.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has pledged a minimum of a further Pounds 10m over the next three years to support the improvement and expansion of state boarding places.

New places could be used to help place more vulnerable children - those either in care or at risk of being taken into care. Fifty-one state and independent boarding schools are taking part in a project to judge the effectiveness of placing vulnerable pupils with them, with a report expected this month.

It is also hoped that more places will be made available for children whose parents work for the armed forces. The independent Wellington College in Berkshire is sponsoring an academy in Tidworth in Wiltshire, offering 100 boarding places, mainly for children from military families.

Malcolm Lloyd, headteacher of Brymore and chairman of the State Boarding Schools' Association, said the number of pupils in state boarding schools rose by 5 per cent to more than 5,000 in 2008. Several schools reported as many as five applications for every sixth-form place.

There are 34 state boarding schools. Tuition is free, but parents pay boarding fees, which are typically about Pounds 7,000 a year.

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