24 May 2002

Schooled in farm facts…

Never work with children or animals, so the old

saying goes. But people involved with schools

farms work with both – and a vital role they play,

too as Tim Relf finds out

IF the children are enjoying it, theyll learn, says Keith Eade, a teacher at The Astor of Hever school.

And the pupils who are involved with the farm at this Kent co-educational high school certainly enjoy it. "They really do love it," says Keith.

"The hands-on experience is what makes it," says Keith, who teaches rural science at this school with 650 pupils, aged 11-18. "Seeing, for example, an animal born is an experience they will keep with them for the rest of their lives."

The farm – which has cattle, sheep and pigs plus small animals – is used as an education resource and hosts a thriving Young Farmers Club.

"Looking after living things is the sort of thing that everyone can have an element of success with," says Keith. "The pupils get a terrific sense of achievement."

Getting involved with the stock also teaches the youngsters life skills – the so-called "hidden curriculum". "Responsibility, commitment, teamwork – its all here. There are a lot of lessons in here.

"A lot of kids come back in later life, even in their 20s and 30s, saying: I learnt so much about life from the farm, even about bereavement."

Keith, meanwhile, is convinced theres a growing need to learn about agriculture, as the town and country divide has widened. "Some of the things that the kids say are incredible. They dont always appreciate that milk comes out of a cow or that cows have to have calves to give milk."

The farm gives the youngsters an introduction to – and appreciation of – the countryside and a chance to learn first-hand where food comes from. "This subject is even more important than when I first started 20 years ago.

"Its so rewarding for everyone. Im very keen on it, very evangelical about it – and so are most of the kids."

One of the years highlights at the Astor of Hever school farm is the Kent County Show.

And its fingers crossed for this years show on July 12-14, after foot-and-mouth forced its cancellation last year. (The crisis also forced the temporary closure of the farm, preventing access by the kids and leaving them "bitterly disappointed".)

"Were ready and raring to go," says Keith. "Weve won lots of rosettes, weve always been very successful there. Its the big reward for their years work. They start talking about the next one as soon as they are packing up from the previous one.

"But rosettes are really just the icing on the cake. Its a

good team-building exercise."

Another person who believes passionately in the role of school farms in bridging the town and country divide is Chris Ely.

"The big picture is teaching kids about food; to educate children has got to be the big challenge," says Chris, the technician/instructor at The Astor of Hever school farm.

"The public are so distant from farmers and farmers are so distant from the public at times that there needs to be a connection. What better way than getting people interested when they are young and fascinated by animals."

The youngsters feel part of a team when theyre here, says Chris. "Its almost a family atmosphere.

"I love farming and the outdoor life – and its very rewarding to work with the kids," says ex-Harper Adams student Chris.

One of the enthusiasts is Hannah Rubie-Todd. "Im here every morning and every evening," says 15-year-old Hannah, who hopes to become a vet. "I really enjoy it. Something different happens every day."

The school farm first brought Hannah into contact with farm animals – and now she wants to work with horses or cattle. "I like being outside," she says. "Its a chance to meet new friends, too."

Another fan is 16-year-old Stephen Paine, who has designed the farms website. "I really enjoy it – its good fun and being involved here has helped build up my confidence."

Nia Atkinson, 16, reckons her experience on the farm will help her career. Nia also speaks of the pleasure of showing stock. "You get a great sense of pride showing an animal youve looked after."

Keith Eade and Chris Ely help pupils such as Hannah Rubie-Todd (left) get the most from the school farm.