Opinion: Education is a vital public good and needs support

The Tory Party conference had barely opened when Defra secretary Michael Gove surreptitiously delivered his intent to withdraw Pillar 1 support.

It wasn’t a flailing haymaker like the one cricketer Ben Stokes recently attempted. No, this was a subtle, tick-like bite. Almost unnoticeable, but with far-reaching consequences without the appropriate treatment.

It came as no surprise. More a question of “when” than “if”.  

See also: Gove says productive farming still vital part of his vision

ian pigottIan Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday

“We don’t have a National Bread Service,” he said. “Public goods, as defined by economists, are things the market economy, left to its own devices, would not necessarily generate.” Michael Gove is all for public good.

While I didn’t care for his primary school economics lesson, I tend to agree with his comments.

Open season

What these public goods will look like is still very much open season. One would assume environmental enhancement, biodiversity and Mr Gove’s personal favourite, public access, will form the backbone of discussions between Defra, NGOs such as the RSPB and farm lobby groups.

“If we’re going to continue to have public money spent on the countryside, then the more people that are able to engage with it, at an early stage, the better,” he said. To my mind this includes, but is most definitely not exclusively about, public access.

Educational access

I don’t profess to be the best farmer. (I score quite highly for effort, but get marked down on more areas than I would care to mention here.) However, we’re not bad at public engagement and education.

It is a core part of our business. We host a sensory programme, a hands-on insight into farming, habitats and cooking, for many schools each year. 

Educational access is hugely important, not just for farming, but for society at large.

In 20 years of hosting school visits I have seen children’s knowledge of food, farming and the countryside improve, but their grasp of its relevance to their lives diminishes alarmingly year on year.

This disconnect is widening at a pace that very few farm leaders, or those within Defra, appear to either acknowledge or comprehend the consequences of.

Without connection how can we expect the British people to value the “public good”, their food, the countryside or any of the trappings that it so generously offers them?

Only last week we hosted a school from London. I was asked by a bright young boy: “What is that?”  I struggled to see what he was pointing at. There was a cow in the way.

It turned out the cow was the ”that”. This isn’t a “children think milk comes from Tesco example”. That was 10 years ago. Now the disconnect is far wider. Mr Gove’s public goods therefore need to include a strategy for the delivery of education and acknowledgement of the biophilia health benefits.

Sensory experience

Our school visits are all about the sensory experience. Doing is exponentially more effective than seeing. However, “doing” is difficult when teachers intervene and won’t let the children touch soil or plants.

Unless we recognise the value of education access, farm visits will become like a trip to the zoo, symbolising a faraway place. We don’t touch, we see, but don’t really get how it relates to our daily lives.

At the recent Bayer/FACE awards, John Gray of Whirlow Hall Farm near Sheffield said: “We offer an oasis of calm for disadvantaged, disaffected pupils that they can’t find anywhere else.” 

A sentiment echoed by many teachers. One said: “Visits to farms offer an unparalleled cross-curricula learning experience.”

Farming delivers more public good than we are ever credited with. National Bread Service, perhaps not. A national habitat, education and wellbeing service, most definitely.

See more