Old Bedalian 1981

Janet Dwyer was in a hurry to taste boarding school life at Bedales, nine years old or not. “As the third of three children, I was desperate to join my siblings,” she remembers. “My parents had put down their oldest for Bedales almost at birth and the family moved down from Hull to be within striking range of school, so that we wouldn’t be too far away for visits. My mother went into teaching once I started school, and my father was a lecturer in Education at Southampton University so they had a longstanding interest in education and we knew that they thought the school was special. I found Dunhurst and Bedales to be pretty much as I had hoped and imagined, based on what I knew from visits on occasions such as Parents’ Day.”

Enjoying a full spectrum of activities from arts and crafts to outdoor work and keeping guinea pigs (even if one was unfortunately savaged by a local Jack Russell), Janet became a particularly keen contributor to musical life at Bedales: “I learned piano with Melanie Puckle and Dennis Lee and I persisted with the oboe up to Grade 8, but I also joined the chamber choir after William Agnew heard me singing during hymn practice one day. Small-group choral singing turned out to be the music that I enjoyed the most and that has stayed with me, ever since. There was always a sense of encouragement to recognise our ability in whatever field it might be, and make the most of it.”

Notwithstanding her admission that she was a shy girl, Janet was confident enough in her abilities to cope well with the school as she rose through it. “I suppose that Block 3 was a bit of a cliquey time but I avoided that by burying myself in with a group of scientists, where those sorts of games didn’t need to be played,” she explains. Meanwhile, Janet also secured a much prized invitation to join the Bedales Wardrobe. “Quite an honour to become a ‘Lady of the Wardrobe’,” she laughs. “It meant that you were responsible for the costumes used in all the school plays. And what costumes! Rachel Carey-Field had built up a fabulous collection of genuine period pieces from as long ago as the 16th Century, picked up from auction houses and loads of other places.”

Besides her artistic endeavours, Janet was also an enthusiastic lacrosse player, who made up in determination for any shortcomings in talent, and a natural recipient of the wisdom of John Rogers during periods of outdoor work. “John was an emotional man, but immensely keen, and when he got fired up, he was an inspiration,” Janet reflects. “I think that the environmental message is one that I first got from him. I opted for sciences at A Level and was really lucky with my teachers there as well. Mr Routh (Andrew, though few people ever called him by his first name) in Biology, was such a lovely man, who showed us how to appreciate the richness of nature. There was Don Spivey in Chemistry, of course, whose exciting lessons were what you might expect from the epitome of the mad scientist! I also remember with great affection the autumn expeditions that we used to take to Snowdonia under the guidance of Don and Paul Brna.”

Such a range of experiences had not helped Janet to decide on her future career by the time she arrived at Emmanuel College, Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. “I didn’t really find myself at that time and while Cambridge is full of beautiful people, life as an undergraduate could also be a bit unreal and exhaustingly hard work,” she says. “It was a place full of great intellectual opportunity though, and I appreciated the quality and calibre of tutors and lecturers, particularly those in the Botany department, where I chose to specialise for my final year. I also became very involved in Third World First, a campaigning organisation promoting a fairer deal for the developing world – thanks to an initial invitation by Ben Polak, an OB in the year above me at Cambridge. TW1 really started my interest in policy and made me think about how important it could be for helping to create a fairer and more sustainable society.”

A seminal influence in Janet’s life was the decision by her parents to buy a small, half-built holiday home in Normandy when she was 11. “Most of our neighbours over there were small-scale farmers, milking cows by hand and pressing apples to make cider or Calvados, and the countryside was so beautiful and unspoilt with high hedgerows and sunken lanes; it led me to start asking questions about concepts such as resilience and sustainability in resource use and management, farming and food supply chains, not to mention UK and European agricultural policy,” she says. “By the time I was at University, the popular cry was that the environmental damage to the British countryside by farming was solely the fault of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but I knew that the same policy had been in place for much longer in France and yet the Normandy countryside had suffered much less damage. A careers advisor at Cambridge pointed me in the direction of agricultural economics and the possibility of sponsorship from the Milk Marketing Board to study this at postgraduate level.  It was a long shot but I convinced the MMB that I was worthy of funding and it turned out to be the best move I could have made, after Cambridge.”

Only two universities in the UK would retrain someone with no previous economics qualification – Reading and Aberystwyth – so Janet was soon on her way to Wales. The summer before taking up her place, she back-packed across China with a female friend to see if she might observe a viable alternative to capitalism. “There were some good things about the Chinese way of life but the trip also made me realise how much I had taken the value of the individual, and freedom of expression that we enjoy in the west, for granted until that point,” she reflects. “My studies in Aberystwyth drew me further into policy and the political questions affecting land and agricultural reform and I determined to focus my PhD upon a comparative study of the effects of the CAP in France and the UK. In my mind, I was studying neoclassical economics in order to critique it – I felt that it tried to set itself up as an objective science, which seemed like a sham to me, having been trained in natural science. And it seemed so inadequate at recognising or valuing the environment upon which it ultimately depends.”

At the suggestion of her supervisor at Aberystwyth, Janet then returned to Cambridge University in a post-doctoral role, working with Ian Hodge to write Countryside in Trust, a book exploring the actions, motivations and challenges of organisations who manage land explicitly for environmental purposes. “I was keen to find out about the voluntary sector in this area and how it worked,” Janet explains. “The free market and commercial incentives under-value the countryside but there are also limits to what government rules and schemes can do. The natural environment can’t be micro-managed from offices in Whitehall, in any case. So, the voluntary sector can play an important balancing role in sustainable land ownership and management.”

A job at the Countryside Commission was to follow for Janet, where she spent much of her time working on land use policy. “Working on CAP reform with an environmental angle was great fun but the trouble with the public sector is the all-pervading bureaucracy that comes with it, the obsession with audit and control,” she observes. “As I’ve got older, I’ve become more cynical about the institutionalisation of ideas, just as I’ve become more sympathetic to the plight of farmers who have to deal with all of the complex policy machinery and its continual process of reform. The UK Treasury has to shoulder a lot of the blame – it never really wanted the CAP and consequently has never been able to make best use of it as a policy. In the early years after we joined Europe, the Ministry simply used CAP funding to push for more intensive farms and a rationalisation and industrialisation of food supply, which benefited the biggest farmers and led to an environmental outcry from the rest of society. To an extent, the change in the CAP from the mid-1980s towards less damaging and more ‘green’ forms of support, plus in England the change in department from MAFF to DEFRA, restored some legitimacy to the role of policy, but the pendulum then probably swung too far. By the middle of the last decade, many farmers felt they were blamed just for trying to make a living and were being told not to produce, as though people in the UK just wanted a ‘post-productive’ countryside for enjoyment. Since 2007 and the food price spikes, policy makers have gone back to talking about the importance of food production, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how this can be combined with sustaining the environment and tackling climate change. The rules have now changed so often and farmers have very long memories: it’s no wonder that many have become confused and depressed about government policies.”

In 2002, Janet joined the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) at the University of Gloucestershire. Undertaking and directing research related to agriculture, the environment and rural development, her work has spanned European and UK rural development policy and practice, with particular interest in integrated approaches, environmental sustainability and institutional adaptation. In 2010, she became Professor of Rural Policy at the CCRI and three years later, she became the organisation’s Director.

“My role means that I can do something about finding out what doesn’t work and fostering better policy and more effective understanding across the sector, between farmers, environmental and community groups and policy makers,” Janet says. “If you investigate things properly and can present your case effectively, you get the reward of helping people to recognise ways forward that can be more effective in the long-term. As a policy evaluator and researcher, I really enjoy the need to make connections and work with all sorts of people but at heart I’m also still an idealist, someone who cares, and I want to try to change things for the better. What else are we in this life for? Like my remarkable and determined mother, I’m an incurable optimist. I have to be.”

A fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a founder and steering group member of the Uplands Alliance, an active member of the UK Agricultural Economics Society and an individual committed to her family, married to church musician, teacher and accompanist Julian Grimshaw, with a son, Sam, who is currently studying for GCSEs, Janet retains her Bedalian penchant for fitting as many things as possible into her life. It’s not the only element of her school days that she has carried with her through adulthood: “Ethics were a central element of Bedales’ influence upon my career development,” she says. “It wasn’t one specific person, but the combined and sustained effect of things like civics, jaw and the opportunity after jaw for considered and respectful discussions with visiting speakers, as well as the whole approach to collective responsibility and behaviour, which have been embedded into my identity and helped to shape my choices. I can thank Harry Pearson for introducing ethics into my A Level science curriculum with the ‘Brighter than a Thousand Suns’ and ‘Beyond the Magic Bullet’ books, but I felt that ethics were much more broadly woven into the school’s fabric and I took them on board, along with all the other opportunities on offer. Reflecting on it now, I think that my Bedalian self would have been quietly pleased with how my life and my career have worked out, so far. But the environmental and ethical challenges remain significant, for all of us.”

Janet Dwyer was interviewed by James Fairweather in September 2015.