Biggleswade school defends farm closure after report confirms it was ‘unviable’

A Biggleswade school has defended its decision to close its revered community farm after a report has confirmed that the facility was “unviable in its current state”.

Stratton Upper School’s farm was established in 1955 and hit the headlines last year when it was announced that the site would be closing on July 19, much to the dismay of residents and students.

Stratton Upper School Community Farm.

Stratton Upper School Community Farm.

An early mothballing process began on July 1, causing more upset, with residents and the Save Stratton School Farm campaigners claiming that Stratton Education Trust (SET) had not done enough to try to save it, that repairs couldn’t be more than £30,000, and that the education of the farm’s students - who would have to study via Shuttleworth College - would be disrupted.

However, Stratton Upper School has defended its decision to close the farm, with principal Roz Hodges sending a letter to parents on January 22 to inform them about the viability report.

The letter states: “You’ll be aware that last April we made the difficult decision to close the Stratton School Farm due to continued cuts in education funding, making the cost of running the farm too high to sustain with the school’s limited budget and resources. We have since explored ways that alternative providers could run the farm instead.

“Unfortunately, a third-party viability report that was commissioned by Central Bedfordshire Council concluded ‘the current state of repair and condition is at the level that it makes it cost prohibitive to return it to a safe and operational farm holding’.

“While this conclusion confirms our trustees made the right but difficult decision earlier this year, it sadly means that it is highly unlikely that the farm will return to operation with an alternative provider as well.

“The report highlighted several items that would require considerable investment to fix, including issues with mains water, electricity, building safety and the suitability of several animal habitats, if it were to continue as an operational farm and educational facility.

“Instead the report suggested alternative options would be more appropriate, such as transporting students to other nearby farms with existing educational facilities.

“This is something we had already explored and I’d like to thank Shuttleworth College, who are supporting our Year 11 students to complete their practical agriculture experience and assessments this year so they can finish their courses.”

However, campaigners have hit back at the news.

Ben Knight, of Save Stratton School Farm, claimed: “The school farm was only closed to students in the summer of 2019. If it is in an “unsafe” condition, there are serious questions to be asked about why learning on the farm continued until such a late stage with the farm apparently in disrepair.

He criticised the management of the farm over many years which he felt had led to its “total deterioration”, adding: “My honest expectation is that SET will surrender the lease on the land back to Central Beds Council.”

Sue Bell, former English teacher and assistant head of year at Stratton Upper School, speaking on behalf of Save Stratton School Farm, claimed: “Back in October 2018 Mrs Russell, Chair of Stratton Education Trust, told the Biggleswade Chronicle that there were no plans to close the farm.

“That this was not true is evident from the minutes of SET meetings obtained following FOI requests. SET allowed the farm to degenerate, spurned public help and support, and never did produce the business plan mentioned by Mrs Russell in the Chronicle article of 26th October 2018. The farm was a valuable unique selling point of the school and received massive public support.

“We would have greater confidence in the report process had it been prepared by those with more direct knowledge and understanding of school farms, rather than huge East Anglian ‘prairie farms’. Was the School Farms Network consulted for advice or assistance?

“The Financial Management and Governance in November 2018 highlighted that this was a school in difficulties. It is to the credit of staff directly involved with the farm that they managed to keep it running as a viable concern for so long.”

A Central Beds Council spokeswoman, said: “We commissioned this independent report through one of our existing contracts acting as an ‘honest broker’ to help the school and the other decision-making parties make an informed choice about the future of the farm.”

The spokeswoman wished to make it clear that CBC itself hadn’t found the farm to be unsafe. It commissioned a surveyor to review the farm, and the report was the surveyor’s conclusion.

A Stratton Education Trust spokesman declined to comment further, stating their letter had covered all key points.