Opinion piece by Graham Ward on the withdrawal of the Educational Access payment

On November 16th, in order to save money, Defra ministers took a decision to remove payment incentives for visitors to our farms from the new Higher Level Stewardship Scheme.  Many of these farm visitors are children.  Illogically they left in capital grants – am I going mad?
STC has been having visiting school children and their families for over eight years. Some have allotments to grow their own salads and vegetables.  Others come for nature trials and health education.  Many bring their families to our two open days.  We also visit schools to give guidance on their gardens.  Our staff supports other projects like Let Nature Feed Your Senses (LEAF), Yorkshire Show School, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust events.  For the last two years we have had Educational access payments from our Countryside Stewardship Scheme.  We pass these on to our schools to help them with their parental funding of outdoor visits.
Our objective is to reconnect children (future consumers) with fresh produce, how it is grown and what it looks like before and after processing for market.  We also show them the needs of plants when growing and how crops can be protected from pests and disease.  Dietary health and benefits as well as cooking skills are included in our programmes.  We show them natural biodiversity in our nature trial/field areas.  Whilst we accept some of this is for the benefit of growers and total market size for fruit and vegetables, we think it also meets Government objectives particularly those of the Dept of Health, the Dept of Education and especially Defra not least to explain the use of tax-payers money on environmental schemes.  In addition behavioral change campaigns such as Change 4 Life and 5 a day advocate increased consumption of fresh produce in a healthy diet, and for some families, visiting a farm is the only opportunity they get to see fresh produce growing and the thrill of harvesting to reinforce these messages.
STC hosted a conference last year; its theme was the importance of fruit and vegetables in the diet particularly for children.  Prof   Stephen Atkins from the HONEI project at Hull University categorically stated that the NHS would go bust in 25 years if diets to include more fruit and vegetables were not achieved.  On 15th December there was a full debate in Westminster Hall on Outdoor Learning, responded to by the Minister of State for Education.  Full details can be seen in the Hansard record on this website.  Natural England (NE) have been using Lottery Funds to promote the One Million Children Outdoor Programme (“far too many young people have no real connection with the great outdoors” NE leaflet).  These are just examples from the mass of literature and evidence which supports outdoor curriculum activity for our children.
You will understand I am a little upset by this totally disastrous decision particularly when Defra claim they are increasing expenditure on Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) by £16 million, £36 million and £56 million over next three years.  I suspect slight of hand to say spending is increasing by 80% as this only refers to HLS and does not add in the continuing Countryside Stewardship Schemes (CSS) with a few years to run.
The spend on HLS and CSS was £174 million pounds in 2010 compared with budgeted £156 million pounds on HLS by 2014.  Those HLS schemes already approved with Educational Access (EA) will be protected (some run till 2020) but no new HLS schemes after 2010 will have EA.
There are 1225 farms or growers with HLS or CSS involved in EA out of a total of 18923 higher type schemes.
From the £174 million spent on HLS and CSS schemes already in existence, £1,316,000 went to EA payments or three quarters of one percent (0.75 %). Analysis of the other measures show some £150 million pounds related to birds or bird habitats and the other £22 million to soil, plants and archeology.
I have three major issues with the decision.
1.   The removal of the payments.   Defra is arguing that this money is all national finance so there is no EU offset.   I wonder how savings of about £340,000 (the monies removed from schemes already being processed for 2011) affect the total Government spend?
The retained payment for capital items still in the schemes is based on the logic that this   attracts 75% EU money.  I think the remaining 25% must be UK money in real cash terms or I am mad!
2.   Withdrawing these funds is grossly unfair to those of us who committed early to these visitor schemes in CSS.   In addition schools have put a lot of work into time and curriculum planning and will now have to find new ways of teaching outdoor activities required.
The Government says about 1000 schemes will be unaffected and continue to collect till 2020.  That leaves 225 CSS schemes who will lose existing payments when they try to move to HLS over next two /three years.
We at STC are one of these so I am even more upset.  Our efforts are rewarded with a kick in the teeth.
Defra figures show this “saving” is about £250000 per year.  If all CSS with EA were renewed to fit alongside those HLS schemes which have ongoing protection for eight years, that would save the Government TWO MILLION POUNDS by 2020.  Or ONE year’s bonus for the boss of RBS Bank which the same Government owns and pays with our tax money!
Every time I hear the Right Honourable Mrs Spelman speak, she talks of sustainability.  I thought our children were our investment in the future?
3.  Natural England had no correspondence with either the Department of Education or the Department of Health regarding this decision.  It was taken internally with Defra; there’s joined up Government for you.
I am afraid I can not give you figures on Fruit and Vegetable Farms within these numbers as Defra does not have the data.   All I do know is that the F&V Task Force thought reconnection visits and school children’s health and dietary education were of major importance to the growth of our industry and future health of the nation.
I do have some data which shows Yorkshire farmers and growers were expanding school visits by greatest number (some 50% of new HLS agreements for 2011 which have had EA cancelled)  which I hope has something to do with our visitors expressing a widening interest in the region.
Natural England think about 200000 children visited farms in 2010.  We, at STC returned figures of 1114 in our CSS records.  Not bad and we did not count open days and other sorts of visits where we had another 1000 children with their parents and families.
I would like the HLS scheme to be reopened to the educational access until CAP reform in 2014  but at least I think those who are in a CSS  scheme and want to change to HLS in the next two/three years should be able to retain EA in their new agreements.
Over the past weeks I have seen various comments in the farming press on this issue and find those made by NFU, LEAF and FACE rather watery for some reason.
The Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year Mr Robert Law wrote “The decision to remove all access options from new HLS schemes has left many farmers  including myself exasperated and in a state of disbelief”.
In last weeks Farmers Weekly, Sir Don Curry, who has been the farming champion for last 10 years, wrote  “The public have a much more positive view of farming and the countryside than they did ten years ago, although we still have a big challenge to inform and educate our school children”.
I would like your help in trying to reverse this retrograde decision.  I think we should be able to raise enough combined strength.
We will post any printable comments you have on this site if you wish.

Horticultural Week  adds to the schools access debate

GPW  Comment on Defra response Why should the 225 farmers in CSS ,who were the early adopters ,fall in as black hole  when the later joiners in HLS will continue to benefit  ?  It’s a small price to pay for supporting Defra and Natural England  over the past eight years   Broken promises seem to be a mark of coalition Government .

Yorkshire Post Countryside Article on Educational Access

Comment from GPW     The Defra Comment that “the savings made will protect other biodiversity and environ “  seems a bit of spin when the payments for next eight years for EA related to farms moving from CSS to new HLS are about £2 million compared with £1.4 billion for the rest of the programme that’s 0.14%   !!!  ( a skylark plot or maybe half of a skylark plot per season in exchange  for general education of 2  million children over the period )

Comment on Educational Access funding withdrawal from Ms Fisher

As a gardener – or a child working in a small plot – you are very aware of what makes plants grow. When you can’t be bothered to fetch water for your plants they die, or if the water butt is empty they die, or if the sun shines too long and too hard they die. All analogies that link to climate change and food supply the very message Government is trying to get over to us all. To learn this from a text book would be very dry and children do learn best by doing.
I cannot understand why this money is being cut. Agree totally that much emphasis is being put on saving trees and birds. Ask an average child to name three species of bird or tree native to UK and they’d struggle. When botany and nature study was taught in all primary and secondary schools they could do this. They are more likely to be able to name three animals that live in the rain forest and tell you why the rain forest is being destroyed – is this because climate change isn’t something we need to think about in UK I cynically ask.
Ask them to name three healthy vegetables that they could grow in their garden and they may be able to do it now because the focus has been on it – stop the focus and it will fade. It’s not about conservation and preservation being the primary aim for our children it’s about education and education works best when children are doing. Many schools in the last 5 years with grants and support from national and local initiatives have built outside classrooms, wildlife areas and school gardens. Must be a reason for them to be doing this – perhaps they do it because it works.
Until then you are merely telling people to do something and they don’t get involved. If you educate children about the way things grow, live side by side, support each other and can be changed without harm you start to get a country that can make informed and life preserving changes.
Birds are an important part of the natural world but children need to know how they fit into their world not just be a pretty picture on a poster given away in a sugar and salt loaded breakfast cereal!
I would argue that the many projects that go on to forward children’s education in such positive ways are essential. My only concern is that it is all so disjointed – where does a parent or a teacher go to find out? Defra should hold registers of all projects and be able to support communities to access them