Anger mounts over plan to close much-loved Biggleswade school farm

The Biggleswade community has been left “dismayed and confused” by Stratton Upper School’s decision to close its farm – a place held special by so many people.

By Jo Gravett
Friday, 3rd May 2019, 8:09 am
Updated Friday, 3rd May 2019, 2:08 pm

The farm opened in 1955 and offers agricultural courses to students, as well as qualifications to pupils with additional needs.

Staff and students also sell produce to local residents and its long-standing teacher, Graham Hucklesby, who died in June 2017 was credited for the life-changing opportunities he had given to pupils.

However, on April 26, Stratton Education Trust announced the farm would be closing on July 19, citing reasons such as a “significant decline” in the number of pupils taking agricultural courses, increased costs of running the farm, a decline in sales, and the need to use its limited financial resources efficiently “to deliver the intended curriculum”.

Farm animals at Stratton Upper School in Biggleswade.

In protest, an online petition was quickly started by the public on Change.Org, having already rocketed to 1,340 signatures in just a matter of days, while several readers have contacted the Chronicle to express their anger and sadness.

Sue Bell, former English teacher and assistant head of year at Stratton Upper School, claimed: “You could also ask why they bother to have a music department, when there is a very small take-up of the subject at GCSE or A-level and few of those who do take it end up in music careers.

“The farm was, and could again, be self-funding, and it is much more than a place to train farmers.

“It wasn’t just the animals [meat produce] there were plant sales, honey products, wool – including alpaca wool, which gets snapped up in seconds – and eggs.”

Another reader claimed: “I’m absolutely gutted. The farm open days were just magic. There were 2,000 people going through the doors. But it wasn’t just about that.

“So many of the farm’s students were fed to Shuttleworth College or other universities, and we’re now at a time where more and more schools are building on-site farms – not shutting them down.

“As for the kids who struggled in school lessons you could see them visibly relax when they went through the gate. Their chests would puff out.

“Here was somewhere they could succeed.

“Ivel Valley School also visit the farm – they won’t have that opportunity now.”

The Chronicle was told by readers that the farm supports around 200 pupils, including Year 9 compulsory lessons, as well as KS4, KS5. and visitors from Ivel Valley.

Indeed, some noted that in 2016, The Guardian reported that agriculture was one of the fastest growing subjects at universities, as the industry needs more young minds to fight the challenges of climate change and sustain global food security.

The interviewees also questioned the decision in light of the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) issuing the Stratton Educational Trust with a financial notice to improve (FNtI) in November 2018.

One reader claimed that the school was “shooting itself in the foot” by closing the farm, losing an “excellent opportunity” to make money.

Other claims included that pupils and staff hadn’t been allowed to fundraise or sell as much produce over the past months and that the closure of the farm is because it is “rumoured that Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust (CMAT) will be taking over from the SET”.

One confused reader alleged: “How can the school justify refurbishment figures of half a million pounds? There’s seven wooden sheds, two big buildings built by a charity in 2010 that are still in great condition, a pig unit, and greenhouses. The pig units need electrical work and repair, the greenhouses need a bit of work. The whole cost surely can’t be more than £30,000?”

Other questions raised included: “What is happening to the money raised [over £1,000] for Mr Hucklesby’s memorial greenhouse now that the farm is closing?

“What will be happening to people who are mid-way through their agricultural course? Will the four teaching/technician staff be made redundant?”

Madeline Russell, chairman of the Stratton Education Trust, said: “I appreciate that many people are upset at the closure of the farm and we are very sad that the decision had to be made.

“We feel that our FAQ responses on the school website clarify our position further, and they answer many of the questions outlined by The Chronicle.

“I’m afraid I am unable to say more at this stage for various legal reasons.”

Statements from the FAQ, which can be viewed on the school website, include: “The school does not get additional revenue funding to run the farm, and the school currently spends upwards of £100,000 a year to operate it.

“Whilst it is enjoyed by a minority of students, continuing to operate it would have an adverse effect on the majority of our students.

“In the current academic year, only 43 students in Years 10 and 11 are studying agriculture,out of a total of 510 students.

“Even if the cost of funding the farm from the school budget were excluded, the farm as a business makes a loss each year because farm sales have been steadily declining over the last few years.”

It was also stated that to bring the whole 9.6 acres up to an acceptable standard would cost upwards of £500,000.

A spokesperson for Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust, said: “We are currently completing the initial due diligence process to learn more about Stratton Upper School before any decision is made about the school joining our Trust.

“We haven’t been involved in any decision regarding the closure of the farm. However, we understand the financial pressures faced by the school and why school leaders have made what must have been a very difficult decision for them.”