For nearly ten years I have been Chief Executive of an educational charity for children called Countryside Learning. I am very proud to work for an organisation that keeps its objectives simple and its promise to its supporters of keeping our beneficiaries at the heart of everything that we do.
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Our mission is a simple one, to educate, inform and inspire children, parents and teachers about the countryside. Many of you will have been involved in one of our Estate Days or Countryside Live events which reach several thousands of children every year. If you have, you will have a great understanding why communicating what we in the countryside do to a wider audience is vital if we are to change the ignorance and prejudice towards our lives which has grown over the last few years.
Countryside Learning works with children primarily, but we find it is just as important to educate the teachers who are accompanying their pupils. At a pre visit session held for the teachers before an Estate Day, one informed us she would not take the children to watch the cows being milked because they couldn’t stand the sight of blood. When probed as to why she thought there would be blood she honestly replied “well they have to kill the cows to get at the milk don’t they?” Now this is an extreme example, but sadly the prejudice faced each and every day towards those who manage shoots, pest control, land management and the real life choices on our behalf is not.
Telling it as it is, the only way children will ever really learn or connect to the information they are being given is if they face the actual realities of the countryside. We work with a great young Gamekeeper on the Otterden Estate called Guy Ledger. When we first started to plan the day with the teachers, Guy suggested he show the children some of the rabbits he will have shot on the morning prior to the children visiting. The teachers felt this would not be appropriate but do you know what the first question the children asked Guy was? “Are we going to see you skin a rabbit?” Of course we need to be sensitive about the information we provide but we also have to give children the credit to see for themselves and make an informed judgement about the countryside.
Einstein said “I never attempt to teach my pupils, I only try to provide the conditions in which they can learn”. This is what we do at Countryside Learning. We don’t necessarily create the next generation of farmers or gamekeepers, but we do want to ensure that we do not create yet another generation of children who do not understand or appreciate the role of countryside guardians. Of course it is a happy co-incidence that sometimes we do develop that life- long love of the countryside in a child and even plant the seed that develops into a future career. Last year we held a great day for local school children at Cranborne Estate in Dorset. Part of the gamekeeping section included a young man who had as recently as two years ago been part of the school group himself. He now attends a local college and works 2 days a week with the team on the estate to develop his career in an area he loves. You can only imagine the amazing communication and rapport he had with the school groups he spoke with. He brought the subject to life and gave his immediate peer group a real sense of what their working lives could be. He gave his young audience the opportunity to see that you don’t have to work in Tesco, you can work in the businesses that supply our supermarkets.
This chance for children, parents and teachers to meet with the real people involved with the management of our countryside is vital to breaking down the barriers that do exist between town and country. If we don’t want to create what Prince Charles has called another “Concrete Generation” of children, we must continue to act like a dating website…..not that I have much experience of them! But the idea of putting a farm and a school together, giving them the opportunity to get to know each other and hopefully start a life- long relationship has to be the best thing to combat hostility to the countryside.
That hostility, if we are honest can work both ways. We need to meet people from an urban environment instead of expecting the mountain come to Mohamed all the time. At Countryside Learning we do this by taking the countryside to the town. Our Countryside Live events do this all over the country. One takes place in Hackney in East London; 4,000 children over two days meet gun dogs, falconers, sheep shearers, BASC representatives, farmers and country crafts people. Often this is the first time that the children have even been to a green space, even if it is on their doorstep.
So many children write to us after the event and say things such as “it’s the first time I’ve met a friendly dog.” “I didn’t believe eggs came from chickens” “I’m going to tell my dad there is barley in his larger” “I didn’t think we were allowed to come to the park I thought it was private.” None of what we teach the children is brain surgery, but to some of them it is as remote as that. We are just giving kids the opportunity to see a world they would never otherwise have that chance. These events can make such a real impact on everyone, even me. I remember after the July bombings in London, a few schools cancelled coming to the event because understandably their risk assessments meant they could not use public transport. As ever, the Fullers Dray Horses were there travelling 8 miles per day with 2,000 passengers providing an unforgettable experience for the children. What was even more memorable for me was looking at the mixture of children on the dray. There was a complete mix of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Not manufactured, simply a case of real social integration in practice.
As John Muir said, “in every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” So why is it that ?
- One in five never visit the countryside – indicating that more than a million children across the country have absolutely no contact with the land.
- 21st century youngsters are more likely to have holidayed abroad than to have explored England’s fields and farms.
- A further 17% have only been to the countryside “once or twice”, meaning a third of children have little, if any, experience of the rural world.
- A fifth of children say they have never picked and then eaten fruit – one of the staples of classic outdoors life.
The life of the whole country, its history and its future is in the hands of some wonderful people. I am not sure I can think of many other sectors who would willingly give up their time and money to help create a greater understanding of a particular way of life than the rural community does. This is a life that isn’t ripped from the stories of Beatrix Potter, but one that is honestly and passionately lived to the benefit of the whole of society. Sometimes there are difficult choices to be made, such as we are seeing with the badger cull at the moment. But in life, hard choices cannot be avoided but they must be made based on a balanced understanding of all the facts and not a cherry picked version of what we would like the facts to be.
We need to educate children, teachers and families, giving them a greater understanding of the countryside and the wide range of issues surrounding it. We want to Educate, Inform and Inspire children, parents and teachers to enjoy and appreciate the countryside around them. We act as a link to a national infrastructure whereby teachers and their pupils can visit and study skilled workers in their workplace, using the knowledge gained and extra resource facilities available through our charity, to take back to the classroom and enhance the school curriculum. It is not often you will see Lenin quoted on this website but he did say; “give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.”
Our continued success and growth is due to many factors not least the tremendous support we receive from individuals, charitable trusts, schools, parents, teachers, farmers, estate owners and of course the children themselves. If you can help us in anyway, If you want to play your part in making sure our way of life is understood and continues then please get in touch with us.
If we want to change the way we are perceived in the future. If we want the world to start to recognise the importance of what we do, we need to listen to the old Chinese proverb
If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you
are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you
are planning for a lifetime, educate people
PO Box 8