Sowing the seeds: Schooling with a farming twist

8 Apr 2024

When I was studying for my agricultural degree at Seale Hayne in South Devon, some fellow students had attended a dedicated farming school in Somerset – Brymore Academy. Instead of going through the usual secondary system, pupils learnt to milk and calve cows, lamb ewes and drive tractors. I was so impressed at the skills and knowledge these students had gained by following this unconventional route. 

This focus on immersive childhood tuition in practical agriculture has continued to intrigue me, so I did some digging. 

Brymore is one of three English schools that have taken a very different approach to teaching children aged 9-18 years old; the others I’m aware of are The Island Project in Derbyshire and SwitchED2 in Cumbria. They all centre their curriculum on agriculture, and have, or are, based on mixed enterprise farms. 

The three schools are supported by local authorities, so are plugged into mainstream funded education; yet their origins have been driven by visionary people who recognise that every child learns differently and that farms can deliver far more than just academic results. Added to this, in today’s era of increased awareness of young people’s mental health, concerns around dyslexia and ADHD, I can’t help but feel that these alternative learning environments are more important than ever. 

The schools aim to teach vocationally, so they are fitting places for those who don’t thrive in mainstream education and want to work in agriculture, horticulture, engineering or animal care. The aim is for pupils to be well grounded in practical skills – including welding, husbandry and blacksmithing – as well as achieving NVQ Levels 1 (GCSE grades D to F and Operator level farm worker) or Level 2 (grades A to C or Semi-skilled Operator) once they reach school leaving age.  

Brymore – a grand house with a fascinating history – was bought and set up as a technical school by Somerset County Council in 1952. The 32 hectare farm has a working dairy, beef herd, rare breed British Lop pigs, lambs and chickens, with the produce sold at the school’s very own farm shop. The schoolkids wear overalls and steel toe-capped boots to classes, rather than uniforms.  

SwitchED2 was a farm diversification set up by farmer Andrew Coates, who had spent time teaching in special educational needs schools before forming the school. A friend of mine has a son there, all the lad wants to do is farm – he sleeps, eats and dreams sheep and tractors.  

Andrew and his team have transformed Oliver into a child that loves learning, taught in a way that ensures that numeracy, science and literacy skills are combined with the most practical of farming tasks. Kids also learn about responsibility, resilience and respect for each other, the animals and the farm. The teaching gears leavers to work in hospitality, land-based roles, motor vehicles or outdoor careers.  

At the Island Project, a three acre farm, the tutors say that pupils face a high risk of underachievement for a range of complex reasons, making traditional mainstream education ineffective. The youngsters thrive in more therapeutic environments, especially in animal-assisted projects and outdoor sessions. Many leavers enter the workplace with an AimVoc Animal Industries qualification that enables them to work in animal care.  

There are some fabulous pre-apprenticeship programmes in Scotland, like Ringlink’s, which target school leavers via farm placements. I can’t help but feel there is merit in us starting immersive education earlier, as these three schools have done. Perhaps we should consider a network of such schools ourselves to give those who just want to farm a schooling that will help them flourish…?