The rise of the countryside as a classroom

    12 March 2020

    Sometimes it feels as though barely a month goes by without British children’s lack of knowledge about the countryside and farming making headlines. It might be that one in three youngsters doesn’t know where milk comes from; or that a similar proportion can’t identify bacon as coming from a pig; or simply that children are playing outside for an average of only four hours a week, compared with eight hours for their parents’ generation.

    Of course times change, and there will be some benefits to having a generation for whom coding and computers are second nature due to a childhood spent looking at screens. But there are any number of reasons why it’s good for children to get outside. Aside from the obvious health benefits of spending time outdoors, failure to do so will also lead to a huge disconnect between children and nature — and our agricultural and rural industries.

    Initiatives that aim to bring the countryside to the city are trying to redress the balance, though. The Ebony Horse Club teaches horse-riding in central London, while Countryside Learning aims to reach children, parents and teachers who live in mostly urban environments, or who might have little to do with the rural or agricultural world. Founded in 1986, this national charity wants to educate, inform and, perhaps most importantly, inspire young people.

    Its main projects are estate days, which take place all over the country. Primary school pupils can visit and learn about life on a rural country estate, with gamekeeping, forestry, farming, tourism and gardening all commonly seen on the timetable.

    Countryside Learning events allow children to meet different animals

    One topic Countryside Learning is keen for children to explore is the link between what they eat and where it comes from. The number of people in the UK who follow a vegan diet is on the rise; the most recent official data shows an increase from 150,000 in 2006 to 600,000 in 2018. Although there’s no more up-to-date information, looking around at the number of vegan restaurants and products on the market, it seems that number must only have increased in the past two years — and it’s certainly a topic of much discussion. Countryside Learning doesn’t take an official viewpoint on what people choose to eat — but it does want children to learn where their food comes from.

    ‘For some teachers, a day on the moors has been such a success that this year they want to bring the whole school to visit’

    ‘Depending on the venue, we use food and how it is produced as a key message,’ says Gary Richardson, chief executive of Countryside Learning. ‘Livestock, arable and indeed farm diversification all feature, but we do not promote one concept, for example, that meat is good, veganism is bad or vice versa. We give the students and teachers the opportunity to meet real people who manage the natural environment for all of our benefit.’ That’s not to say the topic doesn’t arise. ‘Sometimes this leads to quite intense questions from all sides of the argument — but that’s the point.’

    The type of estate that Countryside Learning visits is hugely varied. Sometimes it’s farms; other times, it could be a grouse moor. Five years ago Tina Brough, co-ordinator for the North Yorkshire Moors Moorland Organisation, came up with the idea of inviting local schoolchildren to spend a day up on the moors and learn about what goes on there. To say it was a hit was an understatement. The initiative has now spread to moorland organisations across England, and by working with Countryside Learning and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, ‘Let’s Learn Moor’ is booming.

    Last year, more than 1,500 children visited the moors over a three-day period. ‘This year, I think Anna [the Countryside Learning co-ordinator] sent out the email about Let’s Learn Moor on a Tuesday morning, and by the afternoon 300 places were filled,’ says Brough. ‘With some schools, it’s been such a success that this year they want to bring the whole school to visit. That’s all right when the school has 70 pupils, but when it’s 400, that’s a bit of a stretch.’ Some of the schools involved are on the edge of moors, others are further afield. This year, Brough hopes to recruit more schools in the area around Middlesbrough, where children are far less likely to have much knowledge of the Yorkshire moors, or what goes on there.

    Activities such as making a countryman’s favour

    For the children who do visit, each day on the moor consists of six activities organised by different organisations. These include the emergency services — particularly fire and mountain rescue — gamekeepers, national parks authorities and wildlife organisations. Topics range from sheep farming, to how water could travel from its source on the moor to the children’s homes, to the dangers of lighting campfires or having barbecues on moorland. It was ‘the best school visit ever’, said one pupil, with teachers adding: ‘The children got a lot out of it, learning about things that are not often considered even though we are surrounded by this beautiful countryside.’

    Food is on the curriculum here, too. ‘All the Let’s Learn Moor days this year will be showing the children how to prepare game and enabling them to taste some if they want to,’ says Anna Hare, the project co-ordinator. ‘We have found that getting people such as national parks, the Hawk and Owl Trust and local gamekeepers on one project has been hugely rewarding and beneficial. The schools who take part feel they have had a balanced view of the uplands presented to them and take away their own thoughts and ideas.’

    There are other organisations helping children to get in touch with the countryside, too. The National Farmers’ Union has an education branch that provides a number of teaching resources, all linked to the national curriculum, which help teachers to include agriculture in their classrooms. Organisations including Countryside Learning, the National Trust, Natural England and the Campaign to Protect Rural England  also work together on the Countryside Classroom project, which encourages schools to teach children about food, farming and the natural environment,whether through organising farm visits or providing learning materials for use in schools.

    So there are plenty of resources out there. When push comes to shove, however, whether or not a child learns about farming and the countryside at school will always be down to their teachers. There’s nothing in the set curriculum about the topics, although they can be included in a wide range of subjects: geography, biology, chemistry, PSHE — even English and history. But if it’s something pupils enjoy, and parents encourage, there’s no reason why the countryside couldn’t and shouldn’t be brought into the classroom.