Let’s not put food and farming on the curriculum

I’ve often wished I could have a fiver for every time someone says that we need to do more to teach children where their food comes from. And I’d like another fiver, please, for every time someone concludes the conversation by saying the government should ‘put cookery/gardening/farming on the curriculum’, as if that would put everything right.

Why? Because the absence of cookery and food production from the curriculum is a symptom of a wider social problem. Our entire society has lost touch with where food comes from, and what it really costs – so why should we expect schools to be any different? This is something we all need to do together.

Requiring schools to teach gardening will not be much use when we have a generation of adults who regard the soil with suspicion and have no idea how to grow food. Cookery teachers are in short supply. And farms tend to be out of sight and out of mind. It will take much more than an edict from above to turn this problem around.

In any case, Successful Futures, the new Welsh school curriculum, won’t be like that. As Prof Graham Donaldson explained at a conference in Cardiff last month, it will not be driven by content, or even skills.

It will be about the qualities that young people must have if they are to cope in an unpredictable future. Even computer programming, or coding, the latest exciting skill to hit the classroom, may not stand the test of time. And let’s not get started on handwriting.

Instead, schools will be given more powers to decide how they achieve the four principles of Successful Futures. They are to be ready for anything, as follows:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives;
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work;
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world;
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

After the constriction of the curriculum in recent years, this is a breath of fresh air, and food education delivers on all four points. But it won’t be easy. The plan relies on teachers stepping forward as leaders of culture change, when they work in a setting that is risk-averse and the school day is already crammed with duties.

School inspections are a prime source of pressure, and high expectations from government and a consumer mentality on the part of the public lie behind that. So how can we have ‘experimentation without anxiety’, as one teacher put it?

The hierarchy of the education system can be powerfully inhibiting for those who are inside it, affecting pupils and teachers alike. It is hard to see how it can change on its own. But if teachers can form alliances with outside providers who are free of those particular pressures, they might find fresh inspiration for their professional development.

This is perhaps the real significance of food education. Just as pupils who visit a farm or do some gardening enjoy release from the constraints of the classroom and learn in new ways, so teachers can benefit too. In the natural world, or even in a factory or other workplace, teachers can relate to their pupils in new ways.

Different values are engaged in these settings, where educational achievement in the narrow sense is not the primary focus and instead exploration and curiosity are encouraged. There is a natural democracy too in gardening, farming and cookery which cuts through the individualism of modern life and encourages a more collective response.

Meanwhile, if those of us who have things to offer schools can ourselves learn to work cooperatively with an eye to the bigger picture rather than our own particular enthusiasms, we might help a new model of education to emerge.

models of cooperation

The talk is of culture change. But that calls for new structures to prompt different ways of working, and there are some encouraging models we could build on. The Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools Scheme, for instance, brings together a wide partnership to get children learning outdoors, including farm visits and school gardens.  It  actively works with teachers to develop new approaches.

The Dyfi Biosphere Education Group does a similar job in the Machynlleth area (though it is currently without funding) while at a national level, the Real World Learning Cymru partnership is another route through which the interests of food production can be supported in schools.

Then we have the Healthy Schools Schemes, Eco Schools and other agencies that give schools valuable specialist help. But perhaps the most important source of support for food education is going to have to come from outside the already over-stretched education world.

We need businesses and community volunteers to step in. The food industry could tackle its skills shortage as well as supporting education by working more closely with schools. Other businesses can sponsor activities as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Grandparents and retired people can be key to keeping a school garden going.

There is a crucial role here for government in convening discussions locally, and in funding training and support for such new approaches.  That will cost. But we have to make it work somehow, because there are few things more fundamental than food, and if we get that right, the benefits spread far and wide.

The new curriculum and the Well-being of Future Generations Act both provide opportunities for joined-up local action that makes a difference. Let’s make the most of them.

One thought on “Let’s not put food and farming on the curriculum

  1. PAMELA Mason says:

    Jane, there is some great thinking here on values, culture and big picture thinking which is what we so need for change and progress. Talking about getting people (adults and children) to cook and garden is important in one way but is really seeing through a glass darkly as well as putting pressure on individuals who can’t change things on their own. Progress seems so difficult but as you point out we have some useful models.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *