Hands-on experience has inspired secondary schools to promote farming as a rewarding career to their pupils. Caroline Stocks finds out more about how a slow and steady approach is paying dividends.
Teenagers from across the UK are being helped to see the potential in agricultural careers, thanks to an educational competition designed to showcase the high-tech, innovative and rewarding jobs available in the sector.
Linking Environment and Farming’s (Leaf’s) annual Food, Farming and Natural Environment competition aims to work with students and teachers to dispel myths about food production, while opening their eyes to the array of high skilled career opportunities on offer.
Launched in 2018, the contest was created in response to a Leaf survey which found only 4 per cent of 12- to 19-year-olds had been given information about how to get a job in agriculture, despite more than 60 percent saying they were interested in the industry.
The annual competition involves up to 10 schools being selected as semi-finalists, with each school receiving an on-farm visit to learn about how farmers are guardians of the natural environment.
From those 10, five finalist schools are chosen to win an activity weekend at Coleg Cambria Llysfasi, North Wales, where pupils take part in hands-on activities, such as milking, tractor driving, habitat management and soil analysis.
Carl Edwards, Leaf Education director, says the competition aims to open young people’s minds to modern agriculture and highlight ways they can join the industry, as well as to connect with teachers to find ways they can bring agriculture into the curriculum.
Carl says: “I used to be a teacher and I know that traditional careers events don’t work. We wanted to provide young people with an experience they remember. We also know how I used to be a teacher and I know that traditional careers events don’t work. We wanted to provide young people with an experience they remember busy teachers are, so instead of asking them to do more, we want to show how agriculture can support the curriculum, whether that is through food technology, science or geography.”
Teachers nominate their schools themselves by explaining why their students deserve a place in the competition, as well as the benefits it will bring to their school.
Up to 50 secondary schools across the country enter each year – a number Leaf hopes it can increase even
further this year.
Carl says: “We want to target the high-achieving students aged 14-16, because that is when they are starting to make decisions about what GCSEs they want to take or what careers they might like. Working with children when they are aged five or six is great, but what impact are those farm visits going to have when the children are making career decisions at 16?
“We want to increase their perceptions of the industry and change misconceptions.”
Carl believes the weekends have shown there is still misunderstanding among young people about what food production entails, making the competition as important than ever.
He says: “We took one group into a milking parlour and one girl asked where the milking stool was. She had never considered there was technology involved in milk production.
“By the end of the weekend, that same group were using the term ‘professional’ when they talked about
farmers. “They recognised the industry has chemists and biologists and countless other skilled people, and that agriculture is more than mud and wellies.”
As well as changing mindsets of finalists, Leaf has discovered the competition has had wider, positive impacts on schools. Carl says: “We do follow-ups six and 12 months later with the finalist schools and we’ve found that more than one-third of students involved in the weekends have gone on to stud at land-based colleges.
But we’ve also heard from teachers who have told us they have changed the way they teach GCSE science because of what they have learned on these weekends.
“That means 5,400 other children – not just ones who attended the weekends – have benefited. If we can
continue to have that impact and inspire the next generation of skilled workers to the industry, that is a great thing.”
The 2022 National Food, Farming and Environment Competition will launch in March. For more information, visit leaf. eco/education/the-national-food-farming-and-environment-competition
2021 winning school: Laurus Ryecroft, Manchester
Winning Leaf’s National Food, Farming and Environment Competition in 2021 gave pupils at Laurus Ryecroft, Droylsden, Manchester, the chance to broaden their experiences and opened their eyes to careers they might never have considered, says food technology teacher Ciaran Ellis.
He says: “Many young people from towns and cities do not have access to rural life experiences or know about the variety of careers and opportunities available within the farming industry.
“Having entered in other years, I know how valuable an experience the competition could be and while it was an amazing achievement to win, the experiences the students got will allow them to have a better understanding of farming and food production and the struggles producers are under.”
Ciaran says the weekend at Coleg Cambria Llysfasi was an incredible experience, teaching students about careers in environmental science, as well as helping him learn more about food production.
“When we learned about the science of soils and how important these were going to be to future crop growth and carbon sequestration, the students and I were amazed.
“I hadn’t realised the very current, technological innovation going on within the industry and was perhaps guilty of believing many of the ill- informed things I had read about farming in the past.
“As a teacher, I have learned loads. Leaf Education has improved my subject knowledge, so I am better informed and more up to date when discussing topics around farming with the students.
“I have also been working closely with our Leaf Education regional consultant to build in opportunities for more students to meet different farmers on visits. In 2021, it enabled us to undertake school trips to learn about environmental stewardship and the raising of heritage breeds within our area.
“Most importantly though, Leaf Education has become a link and a sounding board if I ever have a question, and that is incredibly valuable.”
‘Farming is completely different from what I expected’
Students from last year’s winning school, Laurus Ryecroft in Droylsden, Manchester, share what they learned about agriculture through Leaf’s contest:
WHAT DID YOU FIND OUT ABOUT FOOD AND FARMING BY TAKING PART IN THE COMPETITION?
- “We learned lots about how funding of farmers is changing and how they are having to be more environmentally sustainable to achieve grants.”
- “We learned about agroforestry and how different farming methods can be combined to produce food at a more sustainable level.”
- “During the weekend I learned about the variety of careers in agriculture, which seems to be growing with all the new technology opportunities coming through.”
WHAT SURPRISED YOU ABOUT AGRICULTURE?
- “I was surprised with how little I knew. I now realise I knew nothing. It is completely different from what I expected.”
- “I was surprised with how technology had become so valuable to farmers. Everything from anaerobic digesters to intelligent eyes using artificial intelligence.”
HAS TAKING PART IN THE COMPETITION MADE YOU THINK ABOUT A CAREER IN AGRICULTURE?
- “I am still considering my options, but would like to work with machines in the future.”
- “I have wanted to work in marine conservation for a long time, but I am considering how similar this is to water management within the environment.”
HOW DO YOU THINK AGRICULTURE CAN BE PROMOTED TO YOUNG PEOPLE?
- “I wish we were able to have more experiences like this. It’s different when you’re actually doing it and hearing from real people than learning about something in school.”
*The names of the children have been withheld at the school’s request.