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'A vital resource on our doorstep'

FFor schools in many rural areas, a farm visit is not only an eagerly anticipated treat but also an essential tool for teaching the curriculum. All the more reason for dismay, then, at the foot and mouth outbreak.

Farms are "a vital teaching resource - on our doorstep", says Margaret Watchorn, the headteacher at Eglingham Church of England First School in Northumberland.

Eglingham is a tiny village primary with about 40 pupils. Mrs Watchorn teaches full-time with one colleague. She says farm visits are vital because one-third of children come from farming families or have parents whose work relates to the region's strong agricultural economy.

The issue is also important to the pupils of Class 2, (Years 3 and 4). "Working on a farm is hard," says Tom Robertson. "The days are long and you often have to work until late at night, feeding and caring for animals."

"I like finding out if the farmer is getting on well," says Natalie Tate, " and if he or she will pass the farm on to their children."

Ian Brown, the school's chair of governors, runs a mixed arable farm seven miles from the village school. He has set up a fully equipped classroom in a converted farm building as well as an educational farm trail.

Mr Brown believes that the link with the school carries on a tradition that allows children to make a connection with farming and to realise its importance. At his own expense, he has converted a cattle shed into a fully equipped classroom with toilets, wash basins and classroom furniture. A regional development council grant has enabled him to build an educational farm trail.

Mr Brown's Lee Moor farm grows arable crops, but is also home to a small business park that comprises an organic bakery, shitake mushroom culture and a language translation company.

Eglingham's Class 2 comes to appreciate that just because you live in the countryside does not mean you have to be tied to farming.

Liam Forrest-Warren says: "My dad isn't a farmer, but he has turned a farm barn into a studio where he can record music. He has computers so he can send his music on CD to other countries." Other farms offer visits and curriculum links of other kinds. John Carr-Ellifon's farm at Hedgely rears cattle and offers the children a chance to map wildlife and observe nature conservation.

Mrs Watchorn says: "John's done a lot of work re-establishing otters with Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Seeing artificial otter holts gets children to question the need for change. And when children see a field dug up for gravel, it really gets them to question what is economic necessity."

Near the Northumberland coast, Eglingham is as close to the fishing community as it is to farming. Mrs Watchorn believes that the sea is a neglected business link, and one that seems to have a limited future in this part of the world.

"I take the children to visit one of the last of the coble fishermen - the ones that go fishing for lobsters and crabs in shallow boats," she says.

The fisherman is retired, but he shows the children how to make wicker lobster pots and mend nets. I think it's very important that our children should see this before the old skills die out."

Stephen Hoare

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