A firm foundation for growing industry skills

Kris Collins looks at how Foundation degrees in horticultural subjects are helping to address the skills deficit.

Concerned about the future strength of the UK horticulture industry, business leaders across the various sectors have long cried out for new workers entering the industry to have a stronger understanding of practical skills alongside a sound academic knowledge.

In the past few years the education sector, working closely with industry, has sought to provide an answer to this through the development of Foundation degree level courses for horticulture and the specific sectors within it. As popularity in Foundation degrees (Fds) grows - both with students and employers - and with colleges looking to get more industry-relevant Foundation degree courses validated in the next few years, it seems that industry is getting what it has asked for - degree-level qualifications designed with employers that combine academic study with workplace learning.

Some colleges are now running or seeking to develop the option of an extra year of study to take the Foundation degree to full Honours level, and some are teaming up with other colleges and universities to offer this. Rather than blur the edges between further and higher education, course managers and administrators see the development of Foundation degrees as the perfect stepping stone to either further academic study or employment.

Reaseheath College, Cheshire, runs two science-based Foundation degrees, one in garden and landscape design and the other in golf and sports turf management. Both have been developed with input from industry and offer a good balance of theory learning and practical skills learning.

Course manager for garden and landscape design Sarah Hopkinson believes the development of the course through industry consultation makes it one of the most relevant offerings to students and horticulture. She says: "Foundation degrees are potentially more attractive to students as they are a combined academic and vocational qualification. All Foundation degrees are developed through consultation with industry representatives to ensure they are relevant, thus making students fresh out of the course more appealing to employers. They enter the industry with an academic level qualification and a host of transferable skills. All the skills you would expect a graduate to have are developed within Foundation degrees, along with practical skills."

The course is open to all and, while Hopkinson notes a rising level of school-leaver applicants, a high level of entrants are already working in the industry and either want to move away from the harder practical side of landscaping to develop their design capabilities or have the qualifications to go it alone. She says it is ideal for those seeking to start their own business and is an aspirational qualification that enables people to progress to higher qualifications that they otherwise might not have had the opportunity to do.

"Our Fd in garden and landscape design is targeted at everyone and is tailored to those who want to start their own business, so within the course we have a suite of business management modules to enable students to go out on their own.

"This element of the course was driven by industry consultants keen to see management issues taught alongside vocational modules that closely follow aspects of the NVQ Level 3 in amenity horticulture, so as to reflect the occupational standards expected and make students more attractive to employers."

Having run the course for several years, Reaseheath has recently had a top-up year validated allowing students to gain a full BA Honours. Bicton College in Devon, one of the few remaining small specialist land-based colleges, has similarly developed a third top-up year at the University of Plymouth, taking its Fd in Horticulture to a Biology Honours degree (Plant Science).

Course tutor Benedict Murrell says Bicton has a unique selling point for its horticulture programme in the college's mature gardens and plant collections, including a 1.6km-long arboretum. He says: "The FdSc Hort combines horticulture theory and practical skills with pure plant science and its applications to modern horticulture. The practical bits are always the most valued: plant propagation, plant knowledge and horticulture duties in the grounds. Students have extensive use of the historic gardens and modern glasshouses and develop a range of practical skills, leaving Bicton with good horticulture and plant knowledge, graduate-level skills and knowledge in science, plus a sound grounding in business theory. They will have completed a full-time work placement, as well as their regular practical duties, so will combine basic practical skills with the brains of a degree student.

"Industry tells us regularly that students need better practical skills when they leave college, and we have responded by increasing the time spent on work-based learning, introducing practical weeks (working in the college gardens and elsewhere, eg volunteering at the Eden Project) and offering chainsaw, spraying and other certificates."

Subject specialism

In the build up to the 2012 Olympics, increased focus is being placed on the UK's sports grounds. With an increasingly professional sector looking after these facilities Foundation degrees in sports turf management are increasing around the country. Reaseheath College again worked closely with the groundskeeping sector to provide an industry-focused course with its Fd in golf and sports turf amenity. Course manager Gareth Philip says all staff have excellent industry credentials and use this to make the teaching as vocational as possible. He highlights the 2008 turf science module: "Students undertake a full assessment of a sports turf facility in this module. This year we assessed Nantwich Town FC, where they were having big problems with their pitch and were losing revenue from the cancellation of fixtures. The students undertook a site visit, lab analysis on soil and rootzone, and then produced a report, which was presented to the club's committee and was very well received.

"To sum it up, the FdSc provides a balance between theory and practical that is essential for those entering the industry. The opportunities are immense for the right person, both home and abroad."

The college has developed good links with North Carolina State University and Washington State University and operates a student-exchange programme. The last exchange saw American students visiting St Andrews, Murrayfield (SRU), Everton FC, Royal Liverpool Golf Club and Aintree.

Supply and demand

Having seen heritage gardening and design emerge as one of the most popular elements of national awards, certificates and diplomas in horticulture at Yeovil College, lecturer John Horsey has worked with the college and local heritage gardens to develop a specialist Fd in historic gardens and heritage horticulture, set to run from 2009.

He tells HW that students felt there was little progression for their course to study in that area and at the same time he saw a common problem among heritage gardens - a lack of appropriately trained staff. Horsey says: "Working with the college's head of higher education, we came up with some basic ideas for the course and then spoke to as many people as possible in heritage horticulture for their thoughts, including private owners, public and voluntary bodies. Richard Higgs of The National Trust was especially helpful and supportive. Meeting with University of the West of England representatives, it was agreed to validate the degree and draw up a final set of modules. We are currently finalising this for January 2009."

STUDENT PROFILES

Foundation degrees offer a broad knowledge base alongside practical skills, which attracts entrants from all areas - school leavers, people already working and wanting to upskill and career changers. The result is often a wide-ranging peer group for students, which, in many cases, aids both confidence and character building. Here, two Bicton College Fd horticulture students highlight their experiences as their first year of study draws to a close.

Richard Medley joined the course following his A Levels. He says: "I knew I wanted to study horticulture at Bicton as soon as I entered through the grand archway and saw the long avenue of monkey puzzle trees alongside the college drive. I haven't regretted the decision as the staff are all very knowledgeable and the facilities are perfect for the course, with the glasshouses, arboretum, walled garden and the nursery. The course covers several subjects, including soils and plant science, plant propagation, landscape design, biological concepts and a few more which are all very relevant to the course.

"I chose to study horticulture as gardening is my main hobby and I wanted to have a qualification for it. Last year I finished my A Levels and turned 19 years old, and it seemed like the perfect time to progress into higher education.

"I didn't have much horticultural experience before I came to Bicton but that wasn't a problem as the staff have been able to deal with everyone's different levels of experience, which the students have appreciated. There aren't many people in my group, which took a while to get used to, but by the end of the first year I feel we are a tight-knit group who all get on really well with each other.

"I have received a big boost to my self-esteem from the fact that I know that I have learnt a lot this year, especially with the plant nomenclature and science. I haven't decided which area of the horticulture industry I want to go into when I finish the course but I prefer practical jobs where I am hands on with the plants so I am quite interested in nursery work and landscaping. However, I hope that with the Foundation degree I will be able to keep my options open."

Amy Willis has previously worked as a gardener with no training behind her. She says: "My first year at Bicton has been a great success for me. Before I had worked hard as a gardener and enjoyed being outside, but I wanted to know what I was doing and why, to solve any problems I came across and get great rewards from my successes.

"After one year at Bicton I feel calm and confident in myself. The skills and understanding I have picked up are constantly used in my gardening.

"I was uncertain that I'd manage the theory side of the course and thought having not studied science since GCSE that I would be in above my head. I've found the theory and the practical are both extremely relevant to one another - I really never thought I'd find soil so interesting.

"We learn 10 plant names a week plus a bit about them - why they are of interest, habit, uses etc. By the end of the year walking round an open garden together you notice how many other names you've been picking up through pure interest. Everywhere I go I look at plants and trees, either in recognition or curiosity.

"I find the college a friendly atmosphere; our group are very caring and considerate of one another and have helped each other from the start. I would say the course has been challenging but extremely rewarding and would be of great value to anyone wanting to pursue a career within the realms of horticulture."

HOW IT WORKS

The structure of Yeovil College's Fd in historic gardens and heritage horticulture highlights the module system of teaching adopted by Fd courses. The modules move from basic knowledge and skills in the first year to more complex issues of business management in year three (in this part-time study example) with a focus on work-based learning. Following validation it is intended to offer the course full-time across two years from January 2009.

HISTORIC GARDENS AND HERITAGE HORTICULTURE

Year-one modules Heritage Parks and Gardens: a basic introduction
- Historic Garden Styles (Post-1700)
- Plant Knowledge (Non-Woody)
- Plant Management and Protection

Year-two modules Historic Garden Styles (Pre-1700)
- Plant Knowledge (Woody)
- Historic Use and Development of Walled and Kitchen Gardens
- Industrial Work Experience/Work-Based Learning

Year-three modules Business Management of Heritage Gardens and Parks
LConservation of Historic Gardens, Garden Buildings and Features
- Garden Ecology and Nature Conservation
- Individual Research Project

Colleges/universities offering Foundation degrees in 2008

A host of education providers across the UK are offering Foundation degrees in horticulture, many suited to specific industry sectors, ie golf course management, garden design and arboriculture. The following education centres are listed in the Horticulture Week Careers in Horticulture 2008 supplement as offering Foundation degrees in horticultural fields:

- Askham Bryan College, York
- Bicton College, East Budleigh, Devon
- Bishop Burton College, East Yorkshire
- College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise - Greenmount Campus,
Antrim, Northern Ireland
- Duchy College, Camborne, Cornwall
- Easton College, Norwich
- Guildford College (Merrist Wood), Surrey
- Hadlow College, Tonbridge, Kent
- Herefordshire College of Art & Design
- Moulton College, Northampton
- Myerscough College, Preston
- Northumberland College, Ponteland
- Nottingham Trent University
- University of Reading
- Reaseheath College, Nantwich, Cheshire
- Rodbaston College, Penkridge, Stafford
- Sparsholt, College, Winchester
- Warwickshire College
- Writtle College
- Yeovil College

- Careers in Horticulture is available at £10. Call Rebecca Batty on 0208 267 4977 for details.


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