The Difficult Topic of Meat Production: how and what do we teach the children?

1st May, 2019

Today I agreed to contribute to a radio discussion about a news item on school farms and one school in particular which planned to slaughter the pigs, which many pupils saw as pets in order to teach about the food chain. Before the programme I began to brainstorm the many associated issues, e.g:

  • The purpose of Education
  • The need for information and wisdom 
  • The need for children’s personal backgrounds and individual needs and situations to be taken into account along with the wider social context
  • The optimal developmental stage, particularly emotional and cognitive, at which animal slaughter for human consumption is best taught
  • The most appropriate teaching method/s

The purpose of Education has been endlessley debated but most people would agree that it’s broadest and most important aim is to prepare children for life as adults, i.e. to ensure confiden, effective and responsible individuals and successful learners who can contribute to society . Most would also agree that what is taught, i.e. the curriculum is key to this preparation. Since 1989 when the Education Reform Act was passed by the British Government a centralised and common National Curriculum has specified what is taught to children and young people. Education Scotland has specified seven core principles for the curriculum that include challenge and enjoyment, relevance, coherence , personalisation and choice.

Certainly the subject of dietary choices and particularly about meat consumption is a very current, important and relevant topic and from the point of view of informing pupils about the fact that animals are farmed in order to provide meat the vast majority of adults would be in agreement of the ned to do so. The difficult and contentious aspect, however, is that of using animals with whom the children have built up a different kind of relationship very much akin to that of pets. As a psychologist I am not in favour of setting children up to see the animals they care for as pets and then change the terms of reference to that of animal as meat product, i.e. with no emotional and relational strings attached. The only way round this would be for the farm used by the school to be framed as a working farm from the very beginning of any child’s involvement and for all parents and carers to be on board with the idea. I make the last suggestion slightly tongue in cheek because in reality the chances of this are slim and the discussion and consultation required within the whole school community time-consuming and difficult.

It is possible that some children will have had direct exposure to the realities of meat production, for example, if they’re from a farming family. These children’s readiness for exposure to the details of meat production will be very different to that of the majority of children who have only ever experienced farm animals from occasional zoo/farm excursions, TV programmes and picture books such as Peppa Pig and co.  

For the latter and majority group it is only towards the end of primary school that most children can begin to grasp the complex concepts of humane slaughter, meat production and lifestyle, i.e. dietary choices and before this they are simply not ready to contextualise the hard realities of animal slaughter. I deliberately write “most children” because there will always be some particular individual children whose life experiences and/or dispositions are such that even the idea of killing animals is distressing. Teachers and school staff generally need to be aware of and ready, for supporting these pupils.

End Note: The radio discussion was cancelled due to the production team not being able to find a school, which would take part; perhaps because the subject was just too problematic and also not one which many school staff could comment on from experience?

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