Last month, Country Life published its 10-point Manifesto for the Countryside. Not only was it greeted with enthusiasm by you, our readers, but colleagues elsewhere in the media gave it a rousing endorsement. We struck a chord. From that chord, we are building a symphony. Beginning here, we shall examine each of the manifesto demands in detail, starting with the need for more education about country subjects in schools. We have all read surveys which show that a third of nine-year-olds do not know that eggs come from chickens, or the 70% of children who think that cotton comes from sheep. The sad thing is they are true. Children know more about the Amazon rainforest than about the habitat of a British wood.
Of course, it should not be schools which have to do it. Knowledge of the countryside should be absorbed from the home environment. But the days when families of all kinds took walks in the country together, or made pressed-flower collections have gone. In cities, working mothers and single parents may not have the time or the energy to take their children into the countryside. As with other things, responsibility for what would once have been provided by family now falls on schools, as society’s long stop. Fortunately, there is much that schools can do without overloading the system.
But first things first. We must teach the teachers. Country lore is now on a par with spelling and grammar: a generation of teachers is coming into the classroom for whom it means little. These teachers are themselves the product of an education which regarded the countryside as old-fashioned. Like planners, who are released into the environment with a comprehensive background in urban planning, but a mere two or three days’ study of rural issues, aspiring teachers will leave college with a thorough understanding of the diversity agenda: they will have been taught next to nothing about the countryside. They will know more about the evils of pollution and waste, less about the joy of growing things. They may even start their careers with a prejudice against farming?certainly, this seems to have been the case with some young teachers before the passing of the Hunting with Dogs Act. We believe that trainee teachers should be required to spend time in the countryside as part of their studies. In the modern world, it is also important that they are trained in how to risk assess and supervise farm visits.
Every child should leave school knowing where food comes from. Better education about food will combat the epidemic of obesity that threatens to overtake us. It will also help overcome the disconnection between urban consumers and country producers that exists in Britain?breeding an electorate that is better able to decide about matters as varied as supermarket practices and the Common Agricultural Policy. Where should it begin?
We suggest with a potato. There is no more thrilling experience in
childhood than first feeling for the firm white tubers that have grown
with such abundance under the sticky soil. Pull them up, prepare them,
cook them, eat them. There are many lessons to be learnt (maths might
even come into it). No complicated equipment is needed.
A seed potato and a bucket full of earth are enough to get going.
The British Potato Council runs an excellent competition to see who
can grow the most potatoes; they supply seed potatoes to all
registered schools (more than 1,000) free. The website
(www.potatoesforschools.org.uk) has a series of video clips about the
best growing techniques and advice on how the exercise can relate to
the national curriculum. We would like to see the idea extended so
that there is one corner of every school in which an edible crop is
growing. Not all schools have the space for a garden, but there might
well be a local farmer or other landowner?even the trustees of a
London square garden ?who would be happy to lend half an acre for
school children to grow sunflowers, radishes and other reliable
Last year, the Select Committee on Education recommended that children
should spend more time out of the classroom. At the same time, the
quality of school dinners has, thanks to Jamie Oliver, become a
political issue. In addition, it seems that most parents believe that
children enjoy a better quality of childhood in the countryside than
in the town. These issues inter-relate. They suggest that schools
should put more effort into getting their pupils out into the
countryside, visiting farms.
Many farmers have long welcomed school visits as part
of their duty towards the community. Their ranks have been swelled
since diversification and Countryside Stewardship schemes attached
money to the activity. According to Farming and Countryside Education
(FACE), more than 670,000 children visited farms last year. However,
cost of transport is an obstacle for poorer schools. The inner-city
schools which need the visits most are also those with furthest to
travel. Could the British food industry be persuaded to put its hand
in its pocket? Its future depends on a generation of consumers who
appreciate the British brand, and nothing better stimulates goodwill
than farm visits.
Some city farms have been known to take the farmyard to the school,
setting up pens for pigs, sheep, goats, cows and horses on the
playground. It is a concept that could be developed. Art, science,
history, IT and English are all subjects that could be involved.
These are important issues. People who speak regularly on country
subjects are often shocked to discover the strength of animosity
towards the countryside that is expressed by sections of their
audience. Childhood is the time to make bridges. Schools are required
to promote understanding of almost every culture in Britain except
that of the countryside. We believe that a knowledge of the
countryside?its wildflowers, its animals and birds, its beauty?should
be a birthright common to every child in Britain. The generation which
has to cope with the challenge of climate change must understand how
the countryside works. One priority is for the teaching materials in
schools to be updated. Too often they relate to an era of intensive,
hedgerow-ripping agriculture which has passed.
Nevertheless, there are signs of progress. Some country subjects have
made an inroad into the curriculum. More examples of agriculture can be
studied as part of GCSE Science, giving pupils the opportunity to
learn about subjects such as breeding and milk yields in cattle. A new
diploma is being introduced for Environmental and Land-Based Studies.
These are straws in the educational wind. They show what can be
achieved, but there is more to be done?and this is the right time to
do it. The straws must become bales. The bales must become ricks.