Government plans to overhaul the qualification framework for further education have left awarding bodies and colleges facing a huge challenge in the build up to the 2008/ 2009 academic year.
The key change is the prioritising in the funding of courses that include an injection of basic skills such as literacy - a move that means training providers are having to look at ways of altering courses while keeping them relevant to the industry.
Plans to simplify the current framework affect training in all areas of industry, but horticulture faces a tougher task to secure funding due to the specialist nature of many courses on offer. If industry-respected courses such as the RHS Certificate, the National Certificate and myriad professional short courses are to receive funding from the Government then methods of delivery and content must be reviewed.
The targets contained in the Learning & Skills Council (LSC) statement of priorities for 2008/2009 aim to raise the educational achievement of all children and young people, and to narrow the gap in achievement between children from low-income families and their peers. For adults, the aim is to improve the skills of the population and deliver a world-class skills base by 2020.
Meeting these targets will require an increase in the proportion of people of working age achieving functional literacy and numeracy skills, and a higher proportion of working adults qualified to at least a full Level 2 and Level 3.
Level 2 equates to skilled operative level, Level 3 is to technical level, while Level 4 will cover degree-level courses. Level 2 and Level 3 will require 300 hours and 600 hours of study respectively. The LSC also wants to see an increase in the proportion of apprentices who complete the full apprenticeship framework.
LSC chief executive Mark Haysom explains: "We want to reach out to more businesses and more people, to give them the skills they need. This year we are ramping up our focus on people who are not in work. We want to give them the skills they need to break out of the vicious cycle of unemployment and poverty. We want more people to progress in learning - gaining the skills they need to prosper in their chosen careers."
In broad terms, the Government is trying to work with industry nationally to structure qualifications and develop a structure for funding. While the nature of training in other industries allows a somewhat smoother transition, the move affects horticulture because it assumes that a course already has all the components to meet the level requirements and will simply fit in with the new framework, when in fact many horticulture courses do not.
The RHS has a portfolio of qualifications including the RHS Level 2 Certificate in horticulture, Advanced Certificate and Diploma. These do not meet full Level 2 and Level 3 criteria and the danger is that they will fall outside of government funding while remaining hugely important to the industry.
RHS director of science and learning Simon Thornton-Wood is fully aware of this and is currently working with Capel Manor College and other parties to ensure it remains a viable offering in the future.
He tells HW: "The framework requirement is doing something other than addressing skills needs in horticulture. It's adding a significant amount of literacy, numeracy and personal skills to bring up the basic level of skills among the general population, so it's a bit of a red herring in some respects.
"[The horticulture industry] appreciates it is a sector that relies on people learning and developing skills on the job and therefore needs a flexible approach to study.
"We are mindful that a lot of colleges really do want to continue offering RHS qualifications. They are nevertheless pressured by the funding and policy frameworks in which they operate. Where we can, we are keen to work with colleges to find a good fit to enable them to continue their commitment to RHS qualifications and discussions are ongoing as to how to achieve this."
Adapt to survive
NPTC - formerly the National Proficiency Tests Council - has traditionally worked with the industry to develop its offering, and its certification course has been a benchmark for the past 50 years. Having revamped the National Certificate qualification, it is now readjusting plans to ensure it meets new framework criteria. What will emerge is a National Certificate to meet Level 2 and an Advanced National Certificate and Advanced Diploma offering both a vocational route into work and an academic route into university. Both full-time and part-time options will be offered.
NPTC chief executive Jack Ward says the industry is stuck between a rock and a hard place: "The industry needs skilled people and relies on education funding to ensure it gets that. We want to make sure we are still able to deliver something that allows students to draw on funding and, at the same time, make sure that the end product is what the industry wants.
"LSC plans move the targets slightly. We were heading in one direction to put together qualifications we believed were fit for purpose and now funding rules and regulations have moved the goal posts so we need to rethink what we are doing slightly and head in a different direction. By working with industry and colleges, that's something we will be able to do. We know where we need to be - it's just making sure the technicalities of the qualification fit with the funding streams."
He adds: "The move is part of the Government's aim to be able to demonstrate in a tangible way that qualifications are improving by being able to say: 'We have X million trained to Level 2.'
"This all comes in September 2008 so it's fairly serious. We will be looking at quite sizeable losses in funding if we are not careful. We have to make sure qualifications fit the funding outcomes, otherwise students have to bear a larger part of the cost, making it less attractive to study. We need to secure the funding on offer to ensure the best delivery for the industry.
Looking to the future
With industry facing a potential loss of funding for some very specialist and much-valued training courses, colleges and training providers face a big challenge in just a short space of time. Yet there is a feeling of optimism within the sector, as some people see the changes as the perfect opportunity to turn around the way horticulture training is delivered.
Capel Manor College chief executive Steve Dowbiggin believes it is a very exciting time for the industry. He says: "The Institute of Horticulture (IoH) is trying to look at ways of working with various parts of the industry, and those offering courses, to develop a framework that gives a career structure.
"We're looking at pathways to membership of the IoH that reinforce full Level 2 and Level 3 types of qualification by having rules of combination acceptable to the national framework that encourage people through the stages of their career and affiliate to the institute.
"We are effectively looking at a pick-and-mix situation, where people will be able to pick up the skills they need for a specific job and get them accredited. It gives us the opportunity to get the skills of those working in education recognised, reinforce appenticeships and introduce work-based degrees."
The objective, according to Dowbiggin, is to ensure that the industry is accrediting and acknowledging skills picked up throughout a person's career in horticulture. The challenge over the next couple of years is to find a way to do that while still accessing financial support from the Government.
In preparation for the 2008/2009 academic year, NPTC head of product development Steve Hewitt is readjusting the content and delivery of the National Certificate in horticulture to make it fit with the new framework. He explains: "Funding is now being much more geared towards qualifications that meet the new level requirements. If we are to gain access to funding we need to follow that route.
"Part of full Level 2 includes functional skills - currently called key skills - with our other elements of the qualification. We are currently deciding just how to do that. We already have key skills qualifications in place and are developing functional skills along the same lines. Literacy and numeracy will become English and maths. We are working out how to deliver that. We know what we have to do and we already have the qualifications."
He says there are a couple of ways in which it can be done, suggesting the most likely outcome will either be packaging the two qualifications together or incorporating them together as one qualification.
The LSC strategy of priorities calls for an increased level of entrants to apprenticeship schemes and highlights a vast opportunity to work with industry partners to introduce the schemes back into the workplace. Capel Manor College chief executive Steve Dowbiggin sees this as the right way to go and is encouraged by the concept of employers having more say on the skills their staff are taught.
Sector skills council Lantra is also keen to see the development of apprenticeship schemes among businesses. Speaking at the launch of the first annual Apprenticeship Week last month, Lantra national director for England Madge Moore said: "The landscaping industry has recently been buoyed by large-scale development projects like the London 2012 Olympic Park. However, despite an encouraging upturn in apprenticeships over the past three years, there simply aren't enough and the precious skills that these individuals possess are in short supply."
Looking to gain industry interest, the LSC has launched research findings that show how employing apprentices has a beneficial impact on overall business performance. Results from the independent survey show that apprentices give businesses a competitive edge and help retain skilled staff in the sector.
The survey shows that without apprenticeships the outlook for the country's business looks bleak - 83 per cent of employers rely on their apprenticeship programme to provide the skilled workers they need for the future. Two-thirds of respondents claim they would struggle to find trained staff with the skills they need without their apprenticeship programmes, highlighting the impact apprenticeships are having on addressing skills shortages.
The findings also demonstrate the impact of apprenticeships on recruitment and retention, with 80 per cent believing that such a programme improves staff retention and turnover. Two-thirds of respondents believe their apprenticeship programme helps them fill vacancies more quickly, while 88 per cent believe apprenticeships lead to a more motivated and satisfied workforce.
LSC director of apprenticeships Stephen Gardner says: "These survey results confirm the significant benefits that employers achieve from apprenticeships, from increased competitiveness and overall productivity to improved staff retention and motivation.
"The impressive return on employers' investment shows that apprenticeships are an excellent way to improve the bottom line, helping build the workforce employers need for future success.
"There are currently 130,000 companies in the UK reaping the benefits of apprenticeships, and we are calling for even more employers to open their doors to apprentices."