Campaigners upset at early ‘mothballing process’ for Biggleswade school farm

Stratton School Farm.
Stratton School Farm.

A determined campaign group has expressed its dismay as a much loved Biggleswade school farm is to close sooner than expected.

On April 26, Stratton Upper School announced its intention to close the students’ agricultural facility on July 19 at the end of term, leading to the setting up of community campaign group Save Stratton School Farm.

However, the school recently confirmed the farm’s closure and announced that a “mothballing process” would begin on July 1, with students no longer able to use it.

Save Stratton School Farm told the Chronicle that it is concerned about the decision and the “lack of explanation for the change”, arguing that students will be working with unfamiliar livestock in unfamiliar surroundings as well as facing additional travel.

Sue Bell, member of Save Stratton School Farm, and a former English teacher and assistant head of year at the school, claimed: “There is still a freezer full of meat - what is to be done with this? SSSF was under the impression that the farm shop would remain open until all the stock had been sold.

“The original school website statement about the July 1 ‘mothballing’ process was sent to us to approve - the school had agreed to send it over - but the one that was published was changed. The tone was originally much more positive, and began along the lines of ‘After a productive meeting [on June 13] with SSSF...’”

The campaigners had hoped to meet with Madeline Russell, Chairman of Trustees at Stratton, after she recently agreed to a request for a private meeting.

However, Madeline did not meet with Save Stratton School Farm, and instead Sue says vice chair Eddie Kane and “two inexperienced trustees” were sent in her place on June 13, leaving campaign members “disappointed”.

Sue also alleged: “SSSF put in FOI requests and asked the school for minutes of trustee and governor meetings going back to around 2016. The governor meetings are now on the website but they weren’t until we asked.

“SSSF have also been sent some minutes from trustee meetings - in November 2016 the trustees discussed how much money they would save if they closed the farm!

“The trustees minutes are still not on school website when they should be available to the public.”

And Sue and the team are not the only ones who have been pouring through documents and asking questions.

Central Bedfordshire Councillor Dr. Hayley Whitaker, said: “It would appear from the minutes of trustees’ meetings that the decision to close the farm was taken on April 1 2019, following the recommendation to close it at the trustees’ meeting on February 4, so I’m unable to understand why the school continued to offer agriculture courses commencing in September to the current Year 9 cohort in February.”

The closure of the farm has left the community angry and upset, with other arguments including: the farm could be self-funding again and was extremely popular with customers, it fed students to Shuttleworth College and other universities, it helped pupils with additional needs, and that it would not cost too much to refurbish.

Some also emphasised a 2016 report from The Guardian, which said that agriculture was one of the fastest growing subjects at universities, because the industry needs to fight the challenges of climate change and sustain global food security.

A Stratton Education Trust spokeswoman, said: “The Trustees took the decision to mothball the Farm as the school receives no additional income to

operate it and there have been continued real term cuts in education funding making the cost of continuing to operate the Farm educationally unviable.

“We decided to begin the mothballing process two weeks earlier than originally planned but that detail aside, our position is unchanged. There is no requirement for the students to work off site this term and Year 11 next year will complete their practical work at Shuttleworth College. The students have already visited the college to familiarise themselves with the staff and facilities and they will benefit greatly from working in that environment.

“The course offer for the current Year 9 moving into Year 10 was issued prior to the decision to close the farm and it was decided on balance that Agriculture should still be offered as it was not certain that the Farm would close. The School recognises that this has been the cause of disappointment in some instances and whilst that is regrettable, there was no course of action available to us at the time that would have satisfied everyone.

“Where necessary, students were allocated their reserve option and are already well settled in their GCSE classes, having started their Key Stage 4 timetable from June.

“The Trust is currently in discussions with a local body with a view to their taking over the running of the Farm and this will naturally involve obtaining the necessary permissions from Central Bedfordshire Council and the ESFA.

“We have stated from the outset that the Trust would welcome an approach from any suitable group or organisation with a viable proposal to take over the running of the Farm and that we would do all we could to facilitate that process. We therefore encourage interested parties to contact us via the school’s e-mail.

“We would also encourage Chronicle readers to go to the Farm FAQ’s on the School’s website for further information.”