Larmenier kids dig farm-based learning

Larmenier grade 4 pupils Ela Coleman and Sophie Olkers  keep a watch on the pecking order in the chook yard. Pictures: MARK JESSER

Larmenier grade 4 pupils Ela Coleman and Sophie Olkers keep a watch on the pecking order in the chook yard. Pictures: MARK JESSER

THE farm bell rings in the halls of Larmenier Catholic School on the outskirts of Launceston, signalling animal feeding time.

Chickens run to their gate, alpacas stare intently with their chocolate brown eyes at the students holding hay, while four baby billy goats toss their heads and bleat in anticipation.

Two pupils from each class are assigned to the daily feeding task on a tri-weekly rotational basis, and attend to their chores in a responsible manner – and with a smile.

Six years ago the farm school, which has always held animals in one way or another, came to a crossroads.

Assistant principal Mary Wells explains.

‘‘It reached the point where the school either used the farm properly and put money into it, or just got rid of it,’’ Ms Wells said.

The school board allowed 18 months to prove the farm was worth keeping, before providing it with resources.

It is now one of about 32 Tasmanian schools with a farm.

‘‘It has really taken off,’’ Ms Wells said.

‘‘Parents seem to value the farm program and are choosing to send their kids here because of the farm involvement, and time in the gardens.

‘‘Kids learn about where meat comes from, they get to see the life cycle of the animal, the birthing of the animals, and where they fit in the food chain.

‘‘Each class has a farm day once a term and they get out in the garden, planting, weeding, learning about weed and insect controls and ecologically sound practices.

‘‘They cook with farm produce, and feed others.’’

A farm educational environment such as that at Larmenier provided ample opportunity for schools to comply with the Australian Curriculum and its greater focus on food and fibre.

Primary Industries Education Foundation executive manager Ben Stockwin said there were now 164 examples of food and fibre on the curriculum across kindergarten to year 10.

This represented a subtle embedding of agriculture in classes such as maths, to more obvious examples of kindergarten looking at the needs of living things, primary school pupils looking at ecosystems, and year 9s looking at bio-food security.

Mr Stockwin said the increasing focus was born from a lack of knowledge in the community about what plant and animal products were, and an impending agricultural labour shortage.

This included the scientific field, where universities produced just 400 research scientists annually, when the need was for 4000.

‘‘The three misconceptions were that, by and large, farming damaged the environment, that science wasn’t linked to primary production, and that primary production wasn’t linked to innovation and technology,’’ he said.

‘‘How can students want a career within primary industry if they don’t actually know what the modern industry is?’’

Movement in this area aims to build Centres of Excellence in Food and Fibre Education, of which Hagley Farm School in the Meander Valley is soon to receive national funding for.

The centres will provide professional learning and support to schools in their neighbouring areas, and have an influence and impact beyond their own school gate.

Mr Stockwin said this support would improve teacher knowledge and confidence to deliver food and fibre concepts in the classroom.

He said the flow-on effects of this could be huge, and provided examples of agricultural colleges interstate.

‘‘Western Australia, for example, has a very good system of agricultural colleges, running from year 9 to 12, which are heavily focused on vocational training but offer tertiary entrance subjects.

‘‘Essentially they are working farms and on average the seven colleges are making over $1million profit each year which they reinvest to buy state-of-the-art technology.

‘‘Most importantly, the student learning outcomes are above grade average, with 5 to 7 per cent higher marks than the rest of the state, and their retention rates to year 12 are 100 per cent.

‘‘Education research also indicates that if motivation and engagement are increased, improved student learning outcomes will follow.’’

This latter point is something that Ms Wells has also seen in her primary school pupils.

While she said there was no way to know which of their students would go on to follow agricultural paths in their further studies, there were major social and educational benefits to the farm school.

She said the school community also prospered, with higher parental engagement.

‘‘It’s not profitable but it is worth it for what the children get out of it,’’ she said.

‘‘It provides our children with educational opportunities that aren’t available at most other schools, and often the kids who don’t shine in the classroom shine outside.

‘‘They get to show organisation skills, logical thinking and their ability to work through problems.

‘‘It keeps them really engaged at school. It keeps them looking forward.’’

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