Farmers seem to get more excited about education than almost any topic (other than farming, of course!). Having recently been at the Oxford Farming Conference where many were keen to share with me their experiences of working with schools, or their theories on how education should work, it is evidently a subject close to the industry's heart. At the same conference the DEFRA Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom, in her speech made clear that education about farming, and in the natural environment was a key theme for the department, especially as agriculture seeks to find its voice in the public sphere as Brexit priorities are established.
It is not surprising then, that in the nine years the CEVAS (Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme) has been running, nearly two and a half thousand farmers have come forward to get skilled up for the task of engaging with schools.
There is hardly any better raw material for talking to school children than farms and farming. It is practical, tangible and connects directly with the daily experience of every person: eating. Unlike, say, accountancy or marketing (which are very important careers too!), on a farm you can point to the inputs, the outputs and demonstrate the hard work and the role of nature in the middle. At one level, the business model of farming is very simple. It also gives people precious experiences they may not get anywhere else.
Feedback from children to CEVAS trained farmers include:
"This has been the best day of my life."
"I have never felt grass swishing on my legs before."
"This is MUCH better than Alton Towers Miss!"
And from teachers:
"Best school visit ever."
"You have inspired the staff to sort our vegetable plots out and get growing with the children."
It can be daunting however, knowing where to start, how to pitch your explanation to young learners, or how to make sure that the activities you devise (on farm or in a school) are closely matched to that all-important curriculum. The issue of Health and Safety also looms large in people's minds. Research commissioned by Bayer in 2016 showed that among farmers who don't offer school visits, Health and Safety was the number one barrier.
That is where CEVAS comes in. A solid grounding in all these issues, in a relaxed environment, with an expert tutor and a room full of enthusiastic peers makes for really great learning.
We know that during the courses, participants seem to have a really great time and we know that lots of people come on the training as a result of a personal recommendation. But last year we decided it was time to dive deep and see what difference CEVAS really makes through a long-term impact study.
Top of the list of impressive findings was that 85% of accredited farmers are still active with school visits. This, despite very tough times in farming and the loss (for many) of the Educational Access grants, part of the agri-environment schemes.
Between them, these farmers are enabling an estimated half a million schoolchildren to visit their farms every year.
21.7% of visits remain funded by agri-environment schemes. A very healthy 37.4% have now found they can charge schools for visits, making it much more sustainable into the future. This demonstrates that schools are really grasping the value of a farm visit and putting it on a par with visiting a theatre, museum or activity centre.
Past participants reported that learning about risk assessments and the national curriculum were the most useful aspects of the course in the long-term, enabling 54% to offer more school visits, 39% to adapt and improve their offer and 26% to start offering farm visits where beforehand they did not feel ready.
As one farmer said: "The CEVAS course made me realise that I had lots of knowledge which I personally don't think of as interesting but which is clearly interesting to others who don't know it! I now have the confidence to talk about what I know & love, and ask probing questions to find out how much children know.
Farm visits are brilliant PR because everyone goes away having had a great time and they talk about it to others."
Another said: "It gave us the confidence to offer what we have in the way of amazing learning opportunities, and we now do Open Farm Sunday too which is very popular.
As we approach a new year of visits, starting with lambing time (ever popular with young learners and their teachers), it's the perfect time to come on a CEVAS course (see courses and dates near you).
And for those who are already working with schools, why not apply to the Bayer/FACE awards . The awards not only give recognition for the massive contribution you are making to young people's lives and the health of the nation; they also serve to inspire and enthuse other farmers to do the same.
Dan Corlett is CEO of Farming and Countryside Education, the farming industry's go-to education charity.