March 2011


  • The truth hurts
    Tackling an underperforming colleague is never easy but by avoiding it or passing the buck you risk undermining school improvement. Edward Gildea offers some strategies for handling sensitive situations. More
  • Time for reflection
    The government is dispensing with the SEF but that doesn’t mean schools should abandon it as a tool for improvement. Tony Thornley looks at the future of self-evaluation and the implications for schools. More
  • Free range
    Ramsey Grammar’s pride and joy isn’t a state-of-the-art IT suite or Assessment for Learning scheme, says David Trace. It’s a sheep shed and piggery in the school’s animal unit… More
  • An end to pushover policies?
    Doctors and generals wouldn’t tolerate it. So why does the education profession passively accept direction from ministers on how and what to teach? It’s time to set the agenda ourselves, says Peter Campling. More
  • Brainwaves
    Accommodating right brain learning and enabling students to draw on imagery for revision rather than written texts could fundamentally improve outcomes, argues David Hughes. More
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Ramsey Grammar’s pride and joy isn’t a state-of-the-art IT suite or Assessment for Learning scheme, says David Trace. It’s a sheep shed and piggery in the school’s animal unit…

FREE range

We have had two events of great significance at Ramsey Grammar School in recent weeks: one procedural and the other one more…down-to-earth.

The first was a visit from the farm assurance assessor who came to check whether our levels of welfare, documentation and practice were up to high standards required to be registered as a Farm Assured farm for keeping cattle, sheep and pigs.

The inspector spent the morning here, beginning with a tour of our grazing, sheep shed and the piggery which is our pride and joy: it houses two sows and their batches of piglets with a unique combination of indoor and outdoor pens and a gallery which can accommodate an entire class of students, each with writing tablet.

He followed this with an inspection of our records and our policies for looking after our stock, which are all kept up to date by staff and students. We were very pleased when he announced that we met the standards and would therefore be registered as a Farm Assured farm.

We think we are the only school farm unit in the UK to be so accredited and it has brought us an invitation to make a presentation to the UK Schools Farm Network on what being a farm assured school unit entails.

The second major event of the day followed swiftly on the inspector’s heels: with immaculate timing, one of the sows, right on cue, farrowed to produce our first batch of farm assured piglets.

As part of a rural community Ramsey Grammar School has had various manifestations of a rural science department over several generations. The livestock unit began in 1987 when, after the school leaving age was increased from 14 to 16 on the Isle of Man, a piggery was built and a small number of sheep were kept on site.

The scale of both the facilities and curricular involvement rose to a new level in 1998 when a sheep shed was built and a small breeding flock of Poll Dorset sheep were added to the mix. With grazing on site and up the lane at the foot of the hills, we have maintained a flock of a dozen breeding ewes and a ram of that breed.

Demand for the Poll Dorset ewe lambs from this flock has been gradually increasing and we sell the ewe lambs for breeding and the castrated males for meat (so too the pigs) with the income being ploughed back into the running of the unit.

In total, we now have a dozen Poll Dorset ewes, a ram, some rare breed poultry, two sows and up to 50 piglets a year on our four-acre site, which expands to five in summer.

Practical and theoretical study

Since we made rural science a Key Stage 3 core subject in 1998, it has been taught for one lesson a week to all the students in years 7, 8 and 9. In addition students can opt to take environment and land-based science at GSCE which gives them the opportunity for practical and theoretical study of the environment, as well as plant and animal husbandry.

Currently one-fifth of students take that option. Students on the course say they find it highly motivating and they often go on to gain good exam results.

An A level in environmental science (now renamed ‘studies’) is now on offer and in September, 12 students embarked on the course.

Besides the rural science qualifications, the farm work helps support other areas of the curriculum, such as reproduction in science and investigation planning. In terms of extracurricular activities, there’s the Rural Science Animal Club – which recently witnessed a live birth when one of our ewes delivered her lambs (a ram and a ewe) during a club meeting.

Primary schools also use us as a rural centre for activities and we are discussing enlarging that side of things by building it into their annual curriculum time rather than it being ad hoc as at present.

The day-to-day work of looking after the livestock on the unit, both sheep and pigs, is undertaken by teams of student volunteers who inspect and feed stock before and after school. They are trained on the job under only as much supervision as is necessary and older students help out with training the younger ones.

It provides all students with the opportunity for expanding their life experiences in ways that few schools can offer and working among such students as they break new horizons is a privilege few teachers can enjoy.

The rural dimension has encouraged links with many members of the farming community and the connection enables our students to benefit from visits to an automated dairy, a free range egg farm, a fish farm and both free range and intensive pig units, as well as agricultural land for access to soils, rivers and the seashore.

Over the years we have received support from many individuals and enterprises, from assisting with grazing and advice on husbandry, to being interviewees for coursework and hosting work experience placements, some of which have led to full-time jobs. Other farmers will also take some of our orphaned lambs, though that can be a two-way street, depending on the readiness of their/our ewes. These are opportunities and relationships which we greatly appreciate.

A unique experience

Students find working with and learning about the animals highly stimulating.

Jade McKinlay, a year 13 student who is applying to study veterinary medicine at university, says she has found the animal unit to be “an invaluable source of work experience”, having carried out a range of tasks from clipping sheep’s feet to ultrasound scanning for sows.

Ffinlo Martin, in year 9, offers the opinion that the school has “great facilities” generally but by far the best loved is the farm area with the animals. “Many people don’t get the chance to go up close to farm animals so this provides a unique experience. All the students will remember their school’s farm for the rest of their lives and the skills they learn will stick with them forever.”

And finally, Joseph Rock in year 10 reminds us all that our animal unit may offer opportunities for learning, using state-of-the-art equipment and the chance to take cute animal pictures like the ones you see here, but it also keeps you close to nature, in every sense.

He says: “I enjoy the fact that we are the only school on the island which offers such a unique subject with some of the most advanced equipment available, such as the brand new ear-tag reader which cuts down on paperwork and is so much simpler to use in the field. The subject teaches you respect for the natural world and the animals in it.”

He added: “And once when we were ear-tagging the lambs, Mrs Cottier was excreted upon by one of the lambs.” At least he used the word ‘excreted’.

  • David Trace is head of Ramsey Grammar School, an 11-18 community school with about 1,000 pupils on the Isle of Man.

Farm assured

The Farm Assurance scheme provides consumers with the knowledge that the food they are buying has been produced to an internationally-recognised standard.

It means that animals have been kept in a way which respects all their needs including the ‘five freedoms’ drawn up by the Farm Welfare Council:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst – which means access to fresh water and a diet for full health and vigour.
  • Freedom from discomfort – animals are entitled to an appropriate environment with shelter and comfortable rest areas.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease – implying human action is required in prevention and rapid treatment.
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour – with adequate space and facilities, and suitable company.
  • Freedom from fear and distress – so that they do not suffer from the prospect of stressful conditions and treatment.

Accreditation under the scheme also signals that:

  • The animals’ housing is suitable and kept in good condition so that they do not injure themselves.
  • The staff are trained and competent to look after livestock to the required standards.
  • The animal feed used is free from antibiotics and growth promoters.
  • Waste manures are disposed of in a way that does not harm the environment.

Free range