19 May 1995

GIVING THEM A

BALANCED VIEW OF UK FARMING

Getting groups of school-age children on to farms could do much to balance the mass of generally anti-farming information being fed to young people. Liza Dibble explained to David Cousins how one such scheme is working in Glos

WHAT do your children learn in school? English, French or maths are straightforward enough, but what happens when the science lesson touches on farming? Are they told that farmers pack in their animals to make as much profit as possible and that they smother their fields with a cocktail of deadly chemicals? Or do they get a reassuringly balanced view of things?

If you havent given a thought to such things you probably should. Because what our children are taught now about farming will influence how they view it when they are adults. And in a society where fewer and fewer people are connected with farming, public understanding and sympathy will be an increasingly important commodity.

Thats the view of Liza Dibble, one of a growing band of people trying to boost the numbers of schoolchildren who get at least one properly organised farm visit during their time at school.

Mrs Dibble is a relative rarity, someone who has practical knowledge of both schoolteaching and farming. She and her husband have a dairy, beef and arable farm at Highworth in Wiltshire. She began her career as a science teacher in state schools and for the last five has been a lecturer in animal production at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester.

In the last year she has built up the numbers of children from local primary schools coming to visit the colleges three farms totalling 750ha (1800 acres) from virtually nothing to 400/yr. This year she hopes to boost that number to 600, the following year 1000. She also plans to turn her attention to secondary school age children too.

It all sounds simple enough; open your farm gates, herd a party of kids round, answer a few elementary questions and off they go in the bus again. In reality taking children around a farm involves hard graft (producing work sheets, drawing diagrams) and imagination (knowing what will interest them).

You need to give them a proper conducted visit too. Simply allowing children and teachers to wander around a farm, however well signed and labelled, means most of the kids questions will stay unanswered. The farmer or someone else knowledgeable needs to be there to explain why farms operate in the way they do.

Moreover a farm tour scheme for schools isnt something that is likely to mushroom overnight.

"I used to go and talk to schools about farming once a year at harvest time," she says. "Then two schools approached me and asked if they could bring the children to the farm. It all started from there."

The hard graft means producing worksheets and materials for the kids. These are essential, both as ways of helping the knowledge sink in and as solid evidence that can be shown to teachers and parents. But theyre expensive to produce, so sponsorship from the NatWest Bank is much appreciated.

With five years experience under her belt, Mrs Dibble reckons she has a fair idea of what teachers and children want from a farm visit. For the teachers, the visit needs to be relevant and fit in with subjects the children are learning.

Thats not as difficult as it sounds, she says. The farm has a good range of enterprises, including 160 dairy cows, 1000 ewes, cereals, linseed, rape, forage maize, forage turnips and 40ha (100 acres) of organic. Counting bales in a barn or measuring the distance between tramlines to see how often the drill passes fit in well with maths teaching. Turning over cowpats to see what lives underneath adds colour to nature classes and looking at the components of a dairy ration makes an interesting real-life case-study for science pupils.

Farm visits also need to provide value for money, adds Mrs Dibble. Cash-strapped schools often find it difficult to fund the transport, so their farm visit needs to be more than a jolly outing.

Knowing what children want from a farm tour is something that comes only with experience. Some things have universal fascination. Tell a class of 20 seven-year-olds that their combined weight is the same as a single dairy cow and theyll be amazed. Reveal that the same cow produces 40 litres (13gals) of slurry each day and theyll revel in the disgusted contemplation of it. And patting lambs and having fingers sucked by calves regularly top the appreciation charts when the children are asked what they enjoyed most.

Older children need their farming information presented in more subject-specific chunks. Subjects like design and technology ask pupils to link the purpose of a machine with its shape. So any item of farm equipment like a combine or sprayer makes an ideal subject.

But while the benefits of all this to the children and the teachers are obvious, what are the advantages to the farmer? Thats more complicated, says Mrs Dibble. Instilling knowledge in children brings its own satisfactions of course, and its nice that children know about farms. But in the longer term, she says, it can only be to the good of the industry that children who would otherwise know nothing about farming at least have an inkling of what its about.

A 16-year-old contemplating a biased article about farming in a newspaper or on TV may well not remember much of the detail of a farm tour they went on years before. But it may at least make for a more thoughtful and balanced outlook. If youre told in a TV programme that all cattle are kept in cruel conditions, youll probably believe it. If youve seen for yourself quiet, contented cattle with ample space, youll tend to take it with a pinch of salt. Its as simple as that.

Moreover pressure groups like Compassion in World Farming, the RSPCA, Friends of the Earth and the Vegetarian Society regularly put out information packs to school that promote their version of farming reality. Chemical companies, the MLC and the NFU are increasingly producing their own packs too, but schemes like Mrs Dibbles at the Royal Agricultural College provide valuable help.

"I find that there is no anti-farming sentiment or disapproval of farming from primary school children or their teachers," says Mrs Dibble. If you explain it sensibly and logically, they accept that calves have to be weaned at a young age and that lambs will be eaten. Its a different story with GCSE-age children.

"The time when a child is at their most impressionable is at secondary school," she adds. "Were cracking the nut with primary schools, we must then get into the secondary schools. However its more demanding to give a secondary school group a farm tour and you need to design materials for their needs."

The schools are charged £1/pupil/day for the visits but its no more than a cost-covering exercise, says Mrs Dibble. Typical visits are for half a day and involve two to three hours solid teaching, and the money pays for an assistant to Mrs Dibble to help show them round. Unlike open farms, where the aim is to gain revenue from childrens visits, this is strictly an educational operation.

Though many local schools have never visited a farm, interest in doing so is on the increase.

And a shift in what both society and the National Curriculum considers important means that farm visits should become more relevant to schools rather than less. Interest in the environment, welfare, food and diet is burgeoning and farmers pass up the chance to get over their side of the argument at their peril.