HOW MANY children across the UK have the chance to live on a working farm for a week, learning in the great outdoors and enjoying the beautiful countryside?
For some children that is a daily privilege but not necessarily for children from inner cities.
So, children’s author Michael Morpurgo and his wife Clare founded Farms for City Children (FFCC) at Nethercott House in Devon in 1976 to offer urban children from all over the country a unique opportunity to live and work together for a week at a time on a real farm in the heart of the countryside.
In 1986, FFCC acquired Lower Treginnis in Pembrokeshire on a long lease from the National Trust. After a highly successful fundraising campaign, the buildings were converted and re-structured by FFCC and in May 1989 Lower Treginnis opened for its first schools. The project won many awards for its sensitive restoration of the original farm buildings to provide a purpose-built, child-oriented space.
In 1993, a further property was secured on a 99 year lease – Wick Court in Gloucestershire, and across the three farms the charity now welcomes over 3,000 pupils and 400 teachers every year.
To see for themselves how much the children enjoy being out on farm and what the project has to offer, representatives from the Farmers’ Union of Wales joined a group of school children from London at Lower Treginnis farm, St Davids.
The farmstead dates back to 1284, and is the most westerly farm in Wales. Here Farms for City Children works in partnership with organic farmer and FUW members Rob and Eleri Davies, who keep around 900 sheep.
The award-winning buildings were converted and re-structured by FFCC to provide for up to 40 children and their teachers. Here the children help look after poultry, horses, donkeys, milking goats and a breeding herd of pigs. The farm now welcomes over 1000 pupils every year and is booked up for 32 weeks a year.
In charge of running the project in Pembrokeshire is School Farm Manager Dan Jones, who in 2009 started his teaching career in Swansea. He wanted what most teachers want – to help each child achieve their personal best, help them excel and feel fantastic about themselves. Disillusioned with the education system Dan decided to quit general education just five years later.
He explains: “The current education system makes it increasingly difficult for teachers to inspire children to learn. There is a huge workload teachers have to deal with, statistics and data inputting are a priority and that can have a real negative impact on teachers but also the children. It was more about reaching targets and getting my performance related pay and the children were no longer seen as children but as a level.
“So I quit and moved to the most westerly part of Wales – Lower Treginnis farm. The Pembrokeshire coast is now my classroom and the sheep, pigs, horses, goats and vegetables are my resources.”
The farm was not new to Dan. Every spring he would head west for a week of muck and magic with a group of Year 6 pupils and fell in love with the place.
“I would beg to be one of the team who accompanied the children and when a few years later the manager’s position at Treginnis was advertised I knew this is what I wanted to do. I was eventually appointed and am now doing my dream job. My wife, a city slicker at heart, supported my decision and we both handed in our notices and left for Treginnis. To say I am thankful to her for supporting me is an understatement,” Dan said.
Every Friday a coach load of children, aged 9-11, are welcomed to the farm and for many this is their first time away from home. FFCC aims to encourage learning, to raise self-esteem, and to enrich young lives by providing a safe and welcoming setting where children and their teachers together get involved in the working life of a real farm with real farmers.
“Treginnis is not a petting zoo, and we ask them to do real farm work. They are up at the crack of dawn milking goats, feeding pigs and poultry or looking after newborn lambs. The children are completely unplugged from the virtual world and instead can enjoy a game of chess, play cards, read a book or a kick about on the playing field.
“Three times a day the children sit at the dining table with their peers and teachers and eat together. For some that is a new experience but one that they relish. In only a week, you can see a change in the children. They are more confident, have more self-esteem and a real understanding of hard work and perseverance. These experiences and memories stay with them right the way through into their adult lives.
“It is an intense, ‘learning through doing’ experience of a different life – for children who may not know where their food comes from and have limited opportunities to explore the outside world,” explains Dan.
Alun Edwards, the FUW’s Education and Training Committee Chairman who joined the farm visit, said: “This is a fantastic project that helps children understand farming, the countryside and food production and it was great to see how teamwork helps to develop them socially and emotionally.
“The children are immersed and completely involved in a way of life that is so very different to their normal week, helping them to learn also about healthy eating and using practical, hands-on learning outside the classroom really helps with enhancing the requirements of the national curriculum.
“For some of these children it is an opportunity of a lifetime and they may never experience anything like this again. Looking at how the project here celebrates success and building self-worth through work and the completion of tasks, experiences like these should be on the national curriculum.”