When the cows come up to you, just sing

August 21st 2011

Last weekend I went to Paddington Farm to help them celebrate their 25 years anniversary.  A joyous occasion with visitors from twenty five years ago visiting the farm.  A stark contrast to the rioting cities we had left behind.

Paddington Farm (of which I am chair) is a charity operating as a social enterprise, a journey we embarked on two years ago and which has got the support of everyone including the local farmers who are now taking it more seriously because of the business ethic. It supports a comment I made in the Guardian last week where I argued that charity can actually create an attitude of dependency and lack of innovation because of funding arrangements.

The concept of Big Society was alive at the farm and the messages and speeches from those who have visited the farm or who have volunteered at the farm were heart –warming. Our local MP Tessa Munt was there to hear them but I wish David Cameron had been there to see how important it is that we are helped to build sustainable farm holiday businesses to give poor people a welcome break from their stressful lives.  It has very evident social values.

Children clearly like visiting the farm. Here are  some thoughts from children visiting  from Hackney :

Farmers look after animals, feed and clean them, put them to bed and train animals not to bite people”

Farmers really like the countryside and use less electricity than us as they don’t watch TV

Never walk behind a horse

When the cows come up to you, just sing

When we go back to school we will garden, plant, weed, water, dig and harvest. We will plant in season things like spinach and blueberries.  We will have stalls in the playground and a farmer’s market.  We will find out if fruit and vegetables are British and not transported from far away. 

Luckily for the children at London Early Years Foundation, we love the farm and intend to continue visiting come hell or high water.  Not so long ago one manager took her apprentice to the farm.  This young person solemnly told me that it was an experience that she would remember for the rest of her life.

In 1819, the Government and communities were ringing their hands in horror because of an outbreak of knife crime and criminality among young people. Parents were asked to take control of their children, society was told to wake up to their responsibilities.  What emerged was the Young Men’s Working Clubs which provided training and opportunities for young disaffected and angry young men. Are we  staring one  answer right in the face?  Young people need work, training and play.

Places like Paddington Farm must be part of the offer to apprentices with the space to learn and volunteer. Mr Cameron, make this part of your plan for National Citizen Programme. It is surely one way to offer young people a different experience which opens their eyes to the greater world and helps them find their place in it.

Organisations that argue for the rights of all children need to fight for the rights of all children and young people to visit farms.  They must shout out loud about why such places are critical to play and learning.  Children need to experience the joy of running free, getting mucky, climbing, feeding animals, collecting eggs, having campfires and enjoying the experiences of being alive at least once. Older children need space, calm, forest schools, cooking real food and learning how to do things like woodwork,  mending fences, repairing buildings. These are transferable skills which have real purpose and build confidence and competence.

In November I hope all our LEYF managers will spend a weekend on the farm. One thing we will be examining is how LEYF apprentices can access the farm so at the end of their training we will all still be singing when the cows come up to us.