06 June 2012

S4M-02575 Royal Highland Education Trust

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-02575, in the name of Colin Keir, on the Royal Highland Education Trust. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the Royal Highland Education Trust’s work to promote Scotland’s rural and agricultural environment, farming and countryside activities and food education to Scotland’s young people; considers that Scotland’s urbanisation over recent decades has meant that many children have no direct link with the countryside or experience of environmental issues and that this is a gap in young people’s education; notes that the Edinburgh-based charity has received funding from the Scottish Government to educate children about the role that food plays in their lives through farm visits, working with local companies and introducing food topics in the school curriculum; considers that food education has an important role to play in improving Scotland’s health, helping people to make healthier choices and making them aware of the importance of eating sustainably; further notes that the programme will highlight the career opportunities available to young people in Scotland’s food and drink sector, which provides an increasing boost to the Scottish economy, and welcomes the trust’s aim to deliver its programme of farm and estate visits for 15,000 young people per year by 2015.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Several members have welcomed the debate. On behalf of the Scottish Government I, too, thank Colin Keir for the motion, as it is right that we take time to highlight and celebrate the contribution of the Royal Highland Education Trust to teaching Scottish schoolchildren about the issues surrounding food, farming and the countryside. The charity provides a crucial link between urban and rural communities and is making great strides in helping to promote a better understanding of our way of life and of how to enjoy the countryside responsibly.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP): In my teaching days, a pupil asked me whether hens laid eggs hard and with a little stamp on them. I will ask the minister a question to which I do not know the answer: does the hen lay eggs that are soft and then harden? I am thinking of the hen.

Stewart Stevenson: One party trick is to boil one egg and not another, put the two on a desk, get them both spinning and then put one’s hands on both of them to stop them spinning. When the hands are lifted off, the soft egg—the one that has not been cooked—will restart spinning and the other will not. As the teacher has taught me something, I hope that I have taught her something.

I absolutely agree with what Colin Keir said about healthier choices for the young and about careers in food and drink. The food and drink sector is important to our economy and appropriate choices about food and drink are important to people’s health throughout their lives. I am sure that RHET is contributing to people making healthier choices.

As someone who was brought up in a rural community, I find myself doing things that seem to astonish my officials when I am out and about, such as, on a visit to a farm, picking a bit of clover and just sticking it in my mouth to get that wonderful, sweet flavour. They look at me in horror—“What are you doing, minister?” That is the sort of thing that we country dwellers do naturally. It reconnects us to nature.

My earliest recollection of a farm is from around the age of three, when I was sitting on a wall somewhere near Wick, having been asked to count the sheep coming through the dip. I suspect that my counting was somewhat inaccurate, but it probably introduced me to an important concept for use in the urban setting.

I am disappointed to say that, this year, I will not be at the Highland show, as I am taking part in the Rio+20 conference and I will not be back in time.

We heard some interesting revelations. Jean Urquhart talked about the Alcoa Foundation in Iceland funding outdoor school rooms. That sounds interesting. If we can just get the weather management under control, that would be absolutely excellent.

Claudia Beamish introduced quite an important side reference in her remarks when she talked about children washing their hands. It is helpful for children to learn that, when they go to the farm, it is perfectly safe, as long as they take care of themselves and make sure that they do not transfer the wrong things from their hands to their stomach. That is part of the learning process that is applicable in quite a wide range of areas. She spoke warmly of the contributions of Jim Warnock, a farmer in her region, to the education of children who visit his farm.

Alex Fergusson: I was similarly delighted to hear Jim Warnock’s name mentioned. I am sure that the minister will join me in applauding the fact that today, at Scotsheep 2012 at Dumfries house, he received an award in recognition of his contribution to the sheep sector.

Stewart Stevenson: I am delighted to hear that. The cabinet secretary was speaking at Scotsheep this morning. I do not know whether he was the one who made the award, but I am always delighted to hear of achievement in our rural sector.

Aileen McLeod talked interestingly about the next generation of auctioneers. Perhaps if they fail at auctioneering they can come and be politicians instead.

Alex Fergusson was one of the members who referred to Alison Motion, who is in the public gallery. She has been the key person in the co-ordination of much of the activity. Alex Fergusson also talked about milk. That took me back to when we used to go camping in rural areas. In those days, I used to be sent down with the milk jug, which would be filled directly from the cow and would be in the cup within 10 or 15 minutes. That is the kind of thing that today’s children just do not realise, but people such as I do.

Graeme Dey came up with the best phrase of the debate: classroom into the countryside; countryside into the classroom. If that does not capture the essence of what the trust is trying to do, nothing else will.

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP): Does the minister recognise that RHET has an important role to play with regard to promoting a safer Scotland and the fewer knives, better lives agenda, as people such as gamekeepers can show young people that knives are used only for work and gralloching deer rather than taking to Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes, as one pointed out on a children’s visit that I attended?

Stewart Stevenson: That is perfectly correct, and demonstrates the breadth of experience that can be crammed into often quite short visits in order to show that the countryside is a real part of their life, even if they spend comparatively little time in it. Reference has been made to the curriculum for excellence and the role that what we are talking about can play in it.

The debate has been wide ranging and it has picked up on the interests of many people. Although the motion refers to it, I have not heard directly in the debate about the support that there is from a number of companies for the initiative. I welcome the fact that they are putting a bit back. It is proper that companies such as Tesco, and others like it, which sell the products that come from the country, are making contributions to the initiative, and I welcome the fact that they have done so.

Whether it is through farm visits or through working with local companies, embedding food topics in the curriculum, food education and education about the countryside are key to helping young folk understand the role that food plays in their lives. All the encouragement that we can give and that the trust gives is to be welcomed.

I again recognise the fantastic work that the trust is doing and its success in delivering a programme of farm and estate visits for 15,000 young people per year by 2015. Let us all join in wishing it all the best for its future success.

Meeting closed at 17:41.

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