Work underway to prepare College Farm

Workers from Exmoor National Park help prepare the site for Easter Activities

Exmoor National Park have recently volunteered staff to help prepare the college farm asset at Minehead in readiness for government funded holiday activities. The West Somerset College Farm, an agriculture and horticultural educational facility on the outskirts of the town, comprises animal grazing, barns, industrial greenhouses and a large classroom which have lain dormant for the past two years. The site is being brought back into use with the help of the West Somerset Opportunity Area, which plans to run holiday activities with food there, to support families and children in the community.

Julia Ridge of Somerset County Council says: “The West Somerset Opportunity Area recognises the value of the farm unit to the people of West Somerset. Not only is it a great resource to help young people train for a rewarding career, there is also a lot of potential to host other different community projects here too.”

“Children have missed out on so much interaction since the beginning of the lockdown restrictions, so we are really pleased to be able to recondition the unit.  It is a great place for young people to be with their friends, have fun, develop their knowledge of food production and farming and enjoy nourishing food at the same time.”

Tony Mann foreman from Exmoor National Park has worked with staff who trained at the unit, he adds: “This is exactly the kind of project we love to do and really what our work is about, helping the public make the most of our outdoor spaces. It is a pleasure being part of the effort to bring this place back to life.”

Peter Elliot, leader of Bridgwater and Taunton College Trust said: “We are incredibly grateful to the Exmoor National Park and their colleagues for their generous support to prepare the farm facilities for future use.  We are excited that the facility will be available for the community to use for various projects across the coming months.”

The West Somerset Opportunity Area will be involved with the site until September this year. It will be running holiday activities with support from local charities and the government’s Holiday Activities and Food Programme, part of a Covid-19 response package which has been extended into 2021. Activities are scheduled to begin at Easter.

Transition Phase for WSOA

The West Somerset Opportunity Area Partnership Board convenes bi-monthly, to gain an overview of what is an ambitious programme to improve social mobility and the educational outcomes for young people in West Somerset. At the first meeting since the start of the new academic year, there was a sense that much had been achieved, that progress was ongoing, but that the programme was entering a defined transition phase.  Whilst funding continues to be awarded and initiatives still actioned, it was felt we now need to address how to make the programme sustainable going forward. More on this later.

The meeting was held on the 30th of September 2020. First, our partners met our new chair, Professor Colin Diamond. Colin has decades of experience both as teacher and advisor and is the current Professor of Educational Leadership at Birmingham University. He outlined plans to get out and visit individual schools over the rest of the term.

The Board was informed of the continued impact of the Covid pandemic on educational professionals and our business partners within West Somerset. However, there was much to be optimistic about and our schools have adapted well.

West Somerset Academy Trust advised that attendance rates were 5% lower than normal and that two classes had been sent home in Minehead following positive Covid testing. Children in Yrs 3-8 will be assessed before tailored catch up plans are put in place, these plans will be focused on individual requirements, to assist best with their educational recovery. Remote learning has also been strengthened: All West Somerset college students now have WSOA supplied laptops, whilst Yrs 5 and 6 have Chrome books in other schools. In addition, 65 families have been issued with dongles, including unlimited data for a year.

We were informed that businesses in coastal and rural areas across the UK were apparently hit hardest by Covid restrictions, but money has been secured by Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership to undertake Covid recovery projects. There are a number of businesses within our OA which they are monitoring and supporting. The Onion Collective announced that the Mushroom Factory is up and running at the former Watchet paper mill and expects to generate two paid positions. Further news from Watchet came from Contains Art, where students are designing their new educational space within the building. Plus, Minehead EYE was once again operational, with all staff  back and off furlough and it is once again supporting community initiatives. It will shortly be home to a new youth employment hub funded by Somerset West and Taunton Deane Council.  

Somerset Education Business Partnership are still working hard building relationships between employers and schools, and that continues digitally, despite Covid-19. The board was also excited to hear about the forthcoming digital careers fair funded by the OA. Overall it should be noted that no funding decisions were taken at this meeting.

Other business included:

  • Discussion of a national tutoring advice and academic mentoring offering from the DfE
  • Discussion of support and subsidies for childcare and early years places from SW&T
  • Ideas around developing more apprentices for education and childcare workforce
  • Indications that all West Somerset schools are now engaged in a national tutoring programme

Which brings me on to the subject of legacy. It is clear that our stakeholders value the advancements that have been made through the WSOA and that there has been a significant progress on numerous fronts.  

In our Priority 1 and Priority 2 categories, not only have we seen improved attainment of GLD, good learning development, in the early years foundation stage, this is now above national average. We have made clear progress in phonics attainment and a systematic approach is helping those schools with the weakest results. In addition, we have a common attendance policy and Mental Health and Well-being are now prioritised.

Outcomes for older children and young adults have also improved. Better careers advice has led to wider choices at University and other destinations and the education environment has been enriched. Pupils and staff at West Somerset College have benefitted from specialist support and the sixth form is now growing. Moreover, the employer network has grown substantially since the start of the OA. In short, momentum has continued despite Covid interruptions and new practices are now embedded and normalised.

As we begin to formalise how these links and practices can continue, it is apparent that collaboration is key. There is a recognition that we have a clear direction of travel and as we enter into the final year of the programme, the message from our stakeholders is clear; the West Somerset Community itself, its educational professionals, businesses, charities and volunteer networks should play a lead role in shaping this sustainable vision. The WSOA looks forward to working with them on this transition and once again putting young people at the heart of the solution.

By Jan Downie, Department for Education