As we launch Countryside Classroom (www.countrysideclassroom.org.uk) this week, it is worth reminding ourselves of why and how we came to this point. I get asked frequently why we created another web site, and it’s a good question, especially since ‘duplication’ is one of the criticisms that fuelled its very existence.
The consortium behind Countryside Classroom has been working towards this for nearly three years; initially a gathering of food, farming and countryside -related charities with an interest in education, chaired by Lord Don Curry. The purpose, as some saw it, was to sort out all the duplication of effort, and get a better return on investment for the funders and industries sitting behind these charities.
Extending work carried out by the Education Roundtable, an initiative of AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board), the emerging group of partners mapped out the existing provision to schools by 38 organisations. It was apparent that a lot more was going on than anybody realised – in 2013 nearly 800,000 school children visited farms or agricultural shows, 40,000 school visits took place, teachers downloaded online resources 750,000 times and nearly a million hard copy resources were distributed. It also became apparent that there was a lot less duplication than originally thought, with each organisation catering to fairly clear niche groups of schools or interests.
However, a second piece of research, commissioned by AHDB and carried out independently found that teachers and teaching leaders, despite the huge quantity of provision, were also baffled by the range of options and didn’t feel equipped to find and select the right materials or experts for them. They also repeated the often-heard concern that outdoor visits are hard to justify and arrange and that they wanted more support for this.
Talking to more of the would-be partner organisations also elicited a need to work more strategically together, and join forces to communicate clearly what is on offer, and why and how schools should be accessing it. To see more on our collective vision, and information about the partners, go to http://www.countrysideclassroom.org.uk/about
All roads were pointing in the same direction – create and build a really effective map for teachers of the resources, people and places that can support learning about food, farming and natural environment. In practice, there was already something that met at least part of this brief – Growing Schools. With its foundation in a Department for Education and Skills project, it was a similar repository for growing-related activities. Since the end of government funding, it had been developed to support the Natural Connections Demonstration Project in the South West. It is this site that forms the basis for Countryside Classroom, having been ‘upcycled’ with more appealing design, simpler user interactions, a fully national offering, and a broader range of partners. At the very least this means we haven’t created further duplication, and in time we hope some partners will transfer all their teacher-facing content to the site, because of its superior curriculum-mapped search.
Further research and testing refined the idea, while the consortium started to organise itself more formally, raise funding and appoint web developers and communications agents. The site has been in Beta Test phase throughout the summer, and has already met with a huge amount of support and praise. It is now ready for schools to use in earnest and we hold our collective breath as the marketing and communications kicks in, and the site (hopefully) takes off.
Meantime, have a look at www.countrysideclassroom.org.uk and if you like it, tell a teacher you know about it.