So many of us decry the state of education - possibly generally - but certainly that children and young people don’t grow up food-literate: knowing where their food comes from, experiencing the countryside for themselves, or appreciating the science and business expertise that underpin our incredible global food systems.
It’s not that there is no space in the curriculum though, or even that teachers don’t want to teach about it. As a case study, or context for teaching almost any subject, food and farming is rich with material. And teachers really do care about addressing complex topics and preparing their pupils for the world around them and the times ahead of them.
Whether a teacher does engage their pupils with these issues depends on three things - motivation, knowledge and confidence - and of these three, so often it’s the confidence that’s in shortest supply. Why? First, because most teachers now come from a generation itself that has missed out on the chance to get up close and personal to farming and the countryside. And second, because little or nothing in their teacher training prepares them for planning outdoor learning or engaging with the issues around food production. Even in Cooking and Nutrition, a mandatory subject in schools for pupils up to age fourteen, there are gaps. A 2013 study found that 53% of primary and early years' teachers had no cooking skills training.
And thirdly, they know that food and farming can be fraught with controversy, that what they hear in the media is often based on polarised views and that it needs to be handled critically and carefully. But where to start?
How does food production rise above all the other worthy things that children ‘ought to know’ and make it into their school experience? I would suggest not through national programmes, imposed curriculum or expensive media campaigns. It can be low key and local - we can all play our part by helping the teachers directly. I defy anyone to say they don’t know at least one practising teacher by name. Probably your friend, your relative, or the teacher of one of your children. Teachers are learners themselves - inquisitive and hungry for new experiences and knowledge. And like you and me, their existence on this planet is equally “dependent on six inches of topsoil and the fact it rains” to borrow a famous aphorism.
So, could you invite a teacher into your world just for a day? Teachers are busy people, but you’d be surprised how much of their ‘spare’ time they spend researching and preparing their teaching. If you make it fun, or even offer to let them bring their families with them, there’s much more chance they’ll take you up on the offer.
What could you do? Maybe take them on a private guided tour of a farm you work with, or a tour of your offices/labs. You could invite them to a show, a conference or a meeting where they can hear the debates and see where science meets practice. How about a countryside walk where you can discuss the things you see around you (you don’t need to know about every crop, animal, bird or tree - but I bet you know people who do if there are questions to be answered afterwards)? You could offer to help them in the classroom - perhaps based around Why Farming Matters materials (www.whyfarmingmatters.co.uk) or anything else on the www.countrysideclassroom.org.uk collection. Or just meet up for a coffee and a chat to answer their questions and tell them a few surprising things about ‘your world’. Education has changed a lot in recent years - you may also learn some really interesting things about ‘their world’.