Farms are a great source of education, offering lessons in environmental studies, citizenship and biology, among other subjects. The north-east is trying to make the most of them, reports Judy Mackie
Farmer Brown's farm is spick and span. Cows in the cattle court lick and low. Stacked in the barns are bales of straw. The bull in the pen snorts and stamps.
It's a storybook brought to life for the children of St Gerardine's Primary in Lossiemouth, Moray, who travelled to Burnside of Dipple, near Fochabers, to experience the sights, sounds and smells of a working farm.
The P3 and P4 youngsters came face to face with a variety of continental beef cattle and the cereals and silage they feed on. They found out about the barley grown on the farm (which is in the heart of whisky country) and the beetroot (Baxters' headquarters is on the doorstep), learnt about modern and traditional methods of baling hay and straw and saw baling machinery in action. They learnt about how waste is responsibly recycled and the countryside is cared for.
They heard about the daily routines of farmer David Brown and his son, Iain. They even had a glimpse of the complex computerised records and 600 or so passports kept for every farm animal, down to the youngest calf.
No amount of classroom work comes close to replicating the unique learning experience of seeing for yourself. Yet, the traditional relationship between education and farming has been eroded over the years by increasingly stringent health and safety regulations and high travelling costs. For a while, even, it seemed farm visits - the time-honoured focal points of farming projects - had been put out to graze.
However, the farming community of Grampian has been proactive. Under the auspices of the Royal Northern Countryside Initiative, started in 1997, and working closely with the Aberdeen Environmental Education Centre (AEEC), it has made significant efforts for the past seven years to engage with schools in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray, to promote the educational delights of direct experience on the farm.
The Royal Northern Countryside Initiative is a joint project of the Royal Northern Agricultural Society (RNAS) and the Royal Highland Education Trust (RHET) that aims to help children and teachers in the north-east to develop a greater understanding of the working countryside.
Last month the partners launched a resource that could revolutionise the way farming is taught in Grampian schools. Experiencing Farming, Food Production and the Countryside: Ideas for Learning and Teaching is a planning tool for teachers that is designed to link the farming environment to the 5-14 environmental studies guidelines and is free to all primary and secondary schools in the region.
The document and evolving online resource is described by contributing teacher Albert Bil, of Northfield Academy in Aberdeen, as "a teacher's encyclopedia of farming and how to teach it". It took three years to compile and harnesses the diverse expertise of local schools, Aberdeen University, the Buchan Countryside Group, the Forest Education Initiative, the WWF, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Aberdeen's Satrosphere and the city's Montgomery Development Education Centre. It provides ideas for every environmental studies topic under each of the 5-14 attainment targets. It also includes a comprehensive reference section.
"It's going to be an excellent tool," says teaching headteacher Alison Nichol, of Boddam Primary in Aberdeenshire, who attended the launch.
"We're about to revisit farming and a lot of our resources are now out of date, so this will help us to take a big step forward. The pack is clearly laid out and has everything we need to support our lesson planning, as well as links to further information and advice.
"We've just spoken to the RNCI about finding a link farm for us so that we can arrange a visit."
To encourage farm visits, the RNCI organises free workshops for teachers in the Grampian area to look at the teaching possibilities that farms offer.
One at Burnside of Dipple Farm last month prompted an animated response.
"I felt my time was better spent there than at any other in-service event I've been to," says Josette Jones, the P4P5 class teacher at Portessie Primary in Moray. "It's the most immaculate farm I've ever come across. I would certainly consider planning a farm visit after being to Dipple, seeing the facilities and hearing how prepared the farmers are to spend time with us."
Jess Brodie, the P4 class teacher at Burghead Primary in Moray, says: "The visit was very, very enjoyable. You really need first-hand experience when teaching a farming topic. The farmers are much more aware of what we are expecting and any health and safety concerns are addressed in the pre-visit. I'm now looking forward to teaching the topic."
Susan Madden, of Gourdon Primary in Aberdeenshire, has also been inspired to arrange a farm visit for her P3-P5 composite class, funding permitting.
"Buses are very expensive for small rural schools, but we may be able to tie it in with a summer term trip."
If you cannot get to a farm, then perhaps a local farmer can bring the essence of one to your school. The RNCI launched its Countryside Classroom on Wheels in January last year. The purpose-built trailer has three livestock pens and a classroomdisplay area.
"Children can see farm animals at close range and find out how they are cared for," explains RNCI chairman George Skinner. "They can also touch and smell a range of crops and feeds and learn how they are grown and produced."
The CCOW is free to all schools in Grampian. Leaders' notes and workbooks for young pupils are available for use in conjunction with the visit and materials for older pupils are being developed.
The RNCI also has a network of farmers who are willing to visit classes to talk about their work.
"The farming community are terrific educators of children and can really bring alive what happens on a farm," says AEEC manager and teacher Allan Paterson.
He is a strong supporter of experiential education and instigator of the AEECRHET's Looking At The Farm workbooks that are now used in more than 1,000 Scottish schools. He was also one of the major driving forces behind Experiencing Farming, Food Production and the Countryside.
"One of the benefits of this latest resource is that it will never be out of date," he says. "It will be constantly developing online in response to curriculum changes and teacher feedback and with contacts and links being added."
The success of the RNCI has prompted a network of similar RHET countryside initiatives. So far 11 others are being developed.
For resources and other information contactRoyal Northern Countryside Initiative project officer, tel 01651 843239 www.rnci.org.uk
Royal Highland Education Trust, www.rhet.rhass.org.uk