When mucking out isn't to be sniffed at

6th August 2010 at 01:00
As public schools emerge as unlikely champions of vocational education, Adi Bloom reports from the rolling acres where no-one bridles at an NVQ in equestrian studies. Pictures by Andrew Fox

As classrooms go, this one stinks. The smell of hay and damp mud drifts through the air, accompanied every so often by the heady whiff of fresh dung. Oblivious, Charlotte Tims lifts a bale of hay to her chest, then hefts it on to the top of a large pile. She picks up another two, and does the same before pausing, shaking out her arms and catching her breath in heavy gasps. "One's not that heavy," she pants. "It's when you've done a few that you begin to feel it."

Picking up a bucket, she heaves it over to a nearby trough and begins to scatter feed. There is a scuffling sound and a group of calves emerges from the byre opposite, snuffling at Charlotte's hands before knocking each other out of the way to reach the feed. The smell of dung and hay mingles with semi-damp fur.

Seventeen-year-old Charlotte is one year into a two-year BTEC in agriculture at Abbotsholme School. Set in the verdant Derbyshire hills, the 8,870-a-term school is well placed to offer this course: its grounds include an on-site farm, as well as equestrian stables. The walk from Charlotte's sixth-form dorm to the main school building requires a trek across cow pasture.

The UK education system abounds in stereotypes. One is the divide between academic and vocational qualifications: the former are seen as intellectually rigorous, the latter as a sop to the less gifted. Another is between fee-paying and state schools: the former are portrayed as academic hot-houses, the latter have a more laissez-faire approach reflecting the diversity of their intake.

Yet Abbotsholme is one of a breed of independent schools that are confounding these stereotypes - to such a degree that they are at the cutting edge of developing vocational education.

"The farm has been here forever," says Steve Fairclough, Abbotsholme's head. "There was a farm before there was a school. It's part of the ethos; it's part of what we do."

For Charlotte, the school's promotion of vocational education has transformed her school experience - and her typical school day.

"Pretty much every Monday morning is mucking out," she says. "I've never had to do anything like that before, and now suddenly I'm shovelling muck and pushing cows around. It was quite difficult to adjust: going into a small pen where things are quite a bit bigger and heavier than you are.

"And, when I come in on Monday morning, people do say, `Oh, you smell.' You know when you're driving out in the country and you smell manure? I used to think, `Oh, that stinks.' Now I don't really smell it at all. You just get used to it."

In Abbotsholme's stables, a pupil in jodhpurs sweeps out the yard; another fixes a saddle on to a tawny horse. Seventeen-year-old Olivia Donlan lingers in the yard nearby. "I've loved horses since I can remember," she says. "Horses were a big part of wanting to come here."

She is now studying for an NVQ in equestrian studies. "We did jumping the other week," she says, "and it was very nerve-wracking - you feel really scared before. But when you get round, it's a real sense of achievement.

"Horses is a hobby. I don't think I'll ever give it up - I've got horses of my own. But I don't think I'll go into a job with it."

"For me it's a fallback plan," says a blonde teenager with close-cropped hair. Sarah Davies joins Olivia by the stables: she, too, is studying for her equestrian studies NVQ alongside A-levels in chemistry, biology and PE. "My subjects are totally science-y, physical, outdoors," she says. "I'm the kind of person who just doesn't like being in a classroom all the time.

"If something goes wrong further down the line, the NVQ qualifies me to be a stablehand. Or I can use it to make extra money while I'm at university. I think it's good to have some academic skills, but then some practical stuff. You're learning new skills, but you're not stuck in a classroom."

This attitude is what Abbotsholme prides itself on: pupils choose subjects because they find them interesting rather than because of any academic cachet they may or may not carry. One Abbotsholme pupil is currently taking agriculture BTEC alongside A-levels in double maths, chemistry and biology. He intends to go on to study veterinary science at university.

"Of course, you need straight As in the other subjects," says Mr Fairclough. "But, actually, the one course he struggles with is the BTEC. It's not as structured as other courses, so you have to take your own initiative."

Vocational courses are not lacking in rigour, Mr Fairclough insists. On the contrary, he believes they enhance the discipline required in other courses. But not everyone appreciates their role. "It takes people with real educational insight to appreciate their value," he says.

For her part, Charlotte is unconcerned about the reputation attached to vocational learning. "The academic thing doesn't bother me at all," she says.

Having sated the calves, she strides back to the storeroom and emerges with a new, equally heavy bucket. With both hands she heaves it towards a gate across a field. "Agriculture's a lot more practical than any other subjects I've done before," she says. "I thought maybe I might not be up to it: it's very hands-on, so you need to get stuck in."

She pulls the gate shut behind her. Within seconds she is surrounded by lambs. Unflustered, she pushes through them and empties her bucket into their feeding trough. She has one foot on the side of the trough for balance; ovine noses nuzzle at her leopardskin wellies.

"I started out originally just to get the animal experience," she says. "I thought maybe I wanted to get into veterinary science. But now I'm looking at the agriculture side of things a bit more. I think that's where I want to go with my career now."

This is how the Government would like vocational courses to be perceived in every school: as a hands-on alternative to A-levels, no judgment attached. Learning from the example of independent schools, however, would involve admitting that the situation is different elsewhere.

"My experience is that people do take BTECs alongside A-levels," insists Barbara Mitchell. She works for the awarding body City amp; Guilds, which offers vocational courses in subjects such as hairdressing, plumbing, construction and engineering.

"The world we're now living in doesn't necessarily require straight academic progression," she says. "There is an enormous range of vocational programmes that you can transfer into higher-level learning."

But it would be disingenuous to suggest that the divide between academic and vocational subjects does not exist at all. At 5,200-a-year Beth Jacob Grammar in north London, 90 per cent of pupils study purely academic subjects. But for the 10 per cent who struggle with these subjects the school offers qualifications in cookery and sewing.

"For girls who don't want to finish school at 16, we wanted to do something that would please them," says headteacher Devorah Steinberg. "For girls who would otherwise be quite average, in the middle of the class, it lets them shine in a subject." But she is adamant that less conventional subjects merely play to less conventional strengths: "We call these less academic subjects, but actually there is a lot of written work, a lot of research," she says. "It's not just practical. It's not an easy ride; it's a different ride."

Recently, her sewing pupils designed lace borders for their homemade satin dresses, generating the pattern on computer before recreating the design in lace. "I couldn't believe it when I saw it," she says. "It looked like evening wear - those dresses would have cost a fortune to buy, I'm sure.

"The academic girls look at what they have done and say they couldn't do it. Even those who don't take these subjects realise how these skills might be useful in their lives."

But transforming cookery and sewing classes from undemanding fillers to courses worthy of a qualification requires something that private schools are in a particularly strong position to offer: individual attention. Some of the cookery classes at Beth Jacob are made up of only four pupils. "There isn't the frustration of too many girls cooking at one time," says Mrs Steinberg. "And they develop a relationship with their teachers: they know their teachers are going to help them. Small classes make a huge, huge difference."

This is a luxury shared by pupils at Abbotsholme. There are only 330 pupils in the school, 60 in its sixth form. The school's policy is to allow any pupil to undertake any course that the school offers, regardless of numbers; Charlotte is the only pupil in her year taking the agriculture BTEC.

"Obviously, it's a lot less formal," says Jackie Hemingway, Abbotsholme's agricultural studies teacher. "You're not going to stand at the front and deliver from a blackboard or anything."

Mrs Hemingway sits in a bright room, half academic classroom and half science lab. On the whiteboard, a chart divides mammals into rumens, in- betweenies and simple stomachs; humans come under the third heading. At the back of the classroom, large bags of compost are stacked on top of one another. Every so often, Mrs Hemingway refers to "the outdoor classroom" - she means the farm.

Barbara Mitchell, of City amp; Guilds, acknowledges that inevitable funding constraints limit what state schools are able to offer. But she insists that facilities need not be integral to vocational success. State school pupils may not have access to on-site farms or stables, but they do have other options. "They can acquire experience through work placements," she says.

Margaret Viles, head of Highclare School in Birmingham, agrees. The 3,250-a-term school offers older pupils the opportunity to take the European computer driving licence qualification. "If you actually look at the amount of money being poured into the applied sector by the Government, independent schools have never had access to anything like that," she says. "You're looking at the needs of your pupils. That's what should drive it, rather than resources."

But one undeniable advantage independent schools have over most of their counterparts in the state system is freedom, both from the requirements of the national curriculum and the demands of league tables.

Mrs Hemingway taught her subject in the state sector for several years before coming to Abbotsholme. "It's much more flexible here," she says. "I find it more fun teaching in this system: you can be much more creative about how you teach and how you structure things. You organise your teaching around the pupil, their strengths and weaknesses. You can tap into their interests and their ambitions. You don't have to deliver to a rigid system."

She cites as an example one pupil whose parents owned a farm. Rather than focusing on the school's flock of sheep, as she would normally do, Mrs Hemingway tailored the course to allow him to study his parents' flock instead. Other pupils combine agriculture with an engineering A-level; for them, she will concentrate on the practical application of farmyard machinery.

"Obviously, private schools aren't constrained by the national curriculum," Mrs Viles says. "Many of us follow it, but we follow it within the bounds of our own interpretation. We look at how we allocate our time, and if we think something is very worthwhile we have the flexibility to do it. But maintained schools can manipulate the curriculum up to a certain point, too."

Nonetheless, there is more to independent-school education than the curriculum, however flexible. "You can do this course at agricultural college," Mrs Hemingway says, gesturing at the whiteboard. "But you would have the set course, the set units, and that would be that. You would walk in, do that course, and walk away. Here, pupils can benefit from everything that a public school offers - Outward Bound, school sport, school plays - while doing a vocational course. And they have a lot of tutor care and guidance. It's a much broader, wider education."

This is something Devorah Steinberg emphasises, too. "Our school is a community," she says. "Sixth formers take a major role in organising activities - extra-curricular activities for younger girls. It's amazing how grown up they become within a couple of months because they have these extra responsibilities. An FE college wouldn't have that. And you're developing relationships with teachers you've known your whole life. You're not just one of a huge horde."

At Beth Jacob, all pupils - regardless of academic ability - take extra- curricular classes until the age of 18. "The more academic girls learn together with the weaker girls," Mrs Steinberg says. "They help them with test preparation and exam preparation. Private schools can create cohesion, I think."

Not every vocational course is suitable for every school: the subjects on offer at Abbotsholme would not work on Beth Jacob's north London campus. "We love the idea of creating beautiful and balanced meals, having beautiful aromas around the school," says Mrs Steinberg. "It's right for our school: take-up of agriculture or engineering wouldn't be as high here."

At Highclare, the computing course has been chosen to complement pupils' needs. "It's your value-added, your enrichment," Mrs Viles says. "The majority of our pupils go to university and we thought the course would really help them there. We just felt it was very useful for them - that's what drove us."

Steve Fairclough agrees. On the walls outside his office, black-and-white photographs depict his Edwardian counterparts, frozen in various farming, fishing and Outward Bound poses. "The subjects we chose for vocational qualifications fit our ethos," he says.

"They're what we do anyway. We don't see it as a marketing strategy; we see it as part of Abbotsholme and of the parents and kids who choose Abbotsholme."

Mr Fairclough is the son of a Welsh farmer and spent five years working in the agrochemical industry.

"Agriculture is in my blood, really," he says. "For vocational courses to work, the head has to be passionate about it and really believe in it. If you're a vocational school, by definition it's about doing what you want to be doing, rather than what you have to be doing."

Across the school grounds, Charlotte finishes up her farm chores. She strides back across the pasture, leopardskin wellies sinking into the mud. Her father works for the Army and is stationed in Germany; before Abbotsholme, she attended military state schools.

"If you'd asked me before I came here what school was like, I'd have just said, `You go to classes like maths and English, then you go and do some sport, then you have some more classes,'" she says. "I'd never have said, `You can go on a farm during a lesson' or `You can go and ride horses during a lesson.' I just feel so lucky, having all these extra experiences I can try."

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