Castle Tower School breaks newground in teaching agriculture
If anyone was to ever ask me what I found most relevant about the annual ABP Angus Youth Challenge, I would immediately refer to the project’s total success in identifying the true innovation, enthusiasm and drive that is to be found at the very heart of our farming sectors.
An excellent example of this was the decision taken by the team from Castle Tower School in Ballymena to enter the competition. They recently completed their 18-month long Challenge with a Highly Commended Award from the judges. To say that the guys involved in the Challenge constitute a group of very special people would be the understatement of the year.
Headed-up by teachers Ciaran McCaughan and Sheena Manson, the student cohort making up the team comprised: Joshua Boville, Zach Glover, Scott Allen and Daniel Currie. For the record, each has a learning difficulty.
But in the context of what these guys already know about production agriculture and what they want to learn into the future, this is a meaningless concept.
As is the case with all the other groups that take part in the ABP Angus Youth Challenge, they are teenagers with a tremendous interest in farming, which they combine with a strong desire to gain real employment opportunities within an industry that they truly buy into.
This has galvanised a commitment on the part of Ciaran and Sheena to provide Lantra-accredited training courses for the students.
“This means that they can leave school with real qualifications,” said Ciaran.
“In turn, this will allow then to secure sustainable job opportunities within the farming industry as they look to the future.”
But, as with all good ideas, it can take a while to get them off the ground.
“We had a number of hurdles to overcome,” Ciaran explained.
“The first was that of getting the hierarchy within the school on board. Linked to that was the issue of getting insurance cover. And, last but not least, we had to come up with an approved farm location to allow Sheena and myself to actually teach the various courses.”
The solution to all of these problems came in the shape of Ciaran’s home farm on the outskirts of Ballycastle.
“Obviously I know the layout of the farm inside out,” he confirmed.
“It then became a job of laying out the yard in full compliance with the Lantra requirements and then getting the required insurance cover.”
The students get up to the McCaughan farm twice weekly. The visits allow them to receive the full training input they require across a wide range of skill-based activities. These include tractor driving, animal handling, quad driving, calf to beef management and leaf blowing.
Instilling an awareness of their own safety and the safety of others are key drivers for all the courses taken by the Castle Tower student group.
“Health and safety are at the core of everything that we teach,” Ciaran explained.
“If the children learn anything at the farm it’s about the absolute need to think safe at all times.”
So how did the decision to enter the ABP Angus Youth Challenge actually come about?
“I was asked to take over agriculture at the school: I am a PE teacher, in terms of my training,” Seamus explained.
“It was obvious from the outset that we could not teach agriculture to the students in the classroom. So we needed to identify a location that would allow the training-related needs of the students to be met.
“And, of course, getting the proper insurance cover was front and centre, in terms of our thinking for the outset.
“We looked at a range of options that might fit our needs. The list of possibilities included CAFRE’s Greenmount campus.
“We also looked at other farms in the Ballymena area. These didn’t work out. So then we settled on bringing the students to my own farm. This meant that I would be in charge while the children were both at school and out on work practice.”
Ciaran had been very much aware of the ABP Angus Youth Challenge and, with the decision taken to establish the farm-related training for the Castle Tower students on his own farm, saw the opportunity to ‘kill two birds with the one stone’.
He continued: “We had always reared commercial Aberdeen Angus cattle at the home farm. So deciding to enter the Youth Challenge was the perfect complement to the work that Sheena and I were already doing with the students.
“But there had never been another special school in Northern Ireland that had taken part in the competition up to that point.
“So we contacted ABP. A group of people from the company then came out to the school. They heartily encouraged us to submit an entry and the rest is very much history.
“Thanks to everyone involved; the team members and Sheena; the boys got through to the final stage. At that point they were awarded their own mini-herd of Angus cross calves to rear through to finishing and sale to ABP.”
As part of their finalist assignment, the members of the Castle Tower team decided to visit different farming systems to discover more about “Family Farms and Food Heroes” across Northern Ireland.
They visited seven different farms which covered every area of agriculture from Broughgammon farm, where goats and free-range animals are reared alongside a farm shop, to Dolan’s social farm that incorporates the commercial running of a suckler and sheep enterprise alongside a social care farm.
One of the standout features of their project was the importance of family relationships in running a farm and the pride they had working with their children, siblings and parents.
As part of their community theme, the team members organised a barbeque on a sunny day in June where they invited their friends, teachers and parents for some delicious food and a guided farm tour.
And, of course, reaching the final stages of the competition ensured that the Castle Tower team had the opportunity of rearing five cross bred Aberdeen Angus of their own, from weaning through to final processing.
The cattle have been kept on the McCaughan farm, since their delivery from a bespoke calf rearing unit. This means that the team members have been able to work directly with the animals over the past 18 months.
What’s more, they will keep the full value of the cattle for their own use, once the animals have finally processed by ABP. This should happen over the coming weeks.
Ciaran McCaughan again:“One of our main objectives was to profile how good it is for people’s physical and mental health to be working on farms.”
Sheena Manson explained that the agricultural courses offered at Castle Tower cater for children between 15 and 19 years of age.
“The members of the Youth Challenge team were in Year 12 when they entered the competition. They have since moved into Year 13,” she explained.
All teams that reach the final stage of the Challenge are assigned CAFRE Mentors. Both Sheena and Ciaran highlighted the input received from their mentor, Hannah McNelis.
“Hannah was a tremendous help to us in organising quite a number of the farm visits,” Sheena explained.
“In addition, she was always available if we had any queries regarding the management of the Angus calves.”
The achievement of the Castle Tower team is all the more laudable given that most of the work, linked to the preparation of their final submission took place during the Covid 19 lockdown.
Ciaran McCaughan again: “The best outcome of the competition was the experience that the children got from it.
“They missed out on so much school because they were home learning. But the calves still had to be reared. However, because we were all in the same bubble all the class members could still come to me on a regular basis.
“We held a very successful barbeque last summer. And again, because this was taking place outdoors, the event was allowed to take place.
“All the visits that we took part in were, again, held outdoors. And with the required social distancing requirements adhered to, this meant that the students could still avail of these amazing opportunities.”
Both Sheena and Ciaran are quick to point out that the agricultural courses at Castle Tower can be availed of by both boys and girls.
“We had two girls in the group last year,” Sheena confirmed.
According to Sheena and Ciaran, the decision to focus on Lantra training courses, as part of the agricultural curriculum followed at Castle Tower, came on the back of advice given by representatives of the NFU Mutual Insurance company.
Ciaran takes up the story: “There was a farm visit required to secure the insurance cover that was needed to cover the students coming to the farm.
“It was at that stage I became fully aware of the benefits that Lantra qualifications could deliver for the children.
“For example, accredited tractor drivers must have a Lantra ticket, if they wish to work for a company or an employer outside the family group. And the same principle holds where the other farm and land-based skills are concerned.
“We then started to identify the best accreditation tickets that would best meet the needs of the children.
“So they are doing leaf blowing, hedge cutting, strimming, pedestrian mowing, sit-on mowing, tractor driving, telehandler driving, manual handling, quad driving and RTV driving over the next three years.”
Sheena added: “It will take the students the full three years to get them through the various aspects of the accreditation process. So they are coming in to us at 16 and leaving with their tickets at 19.”
“The children are also doing a Level 2 agricultural course through Lantra, which is the equivalent of a Grade ‘C’ at GCSE.
“All of this is adding to their employability.”
Ciaran emphasised the focus on teaching safety that permeates every aspect of all the Lantra courses.
“Safety is the key issue, irrespective of which course is being taught,” he stressed.
“Prior to Lantra, there were no real courses that were appropriate for the children.
“Councils have many seasonal jobs available for seasonal workers and the same principle holds where gardening, landscaping companies and golf courses are concerned.
“There are also lots of jobs available within farming at the present time. But the young people looking to avail of these opportunities must have the required qualifications.”
ABP’s Blade Farming Co-ordinator in Northern Ireland, Stuart Cromie, said he and his colleagues at ABP are delighted with the steps Ciaran and Sheena are taking to build on their success and further develop the skills base of the students.
“There’s no doubt that the boys have come on leaps and bounds since entering ABP Angus Youth Challenge,” he explained.
“Working with the calves has been a great boost in this regard.”
All of the students making up the Castle Tower team either come from farms or have a strong farming background. What’s more, they all see themselves as having a future, either working on their own farms or within the farming industry more generally.
There is also a very strong competitive spirit within the team. When asked what he enjoyed most about taking part in the competition 17 year old Zach Glover pulled no punches: “Winning the cup,” he proclaimed.