Fix apprenticeships to build the learners

Monday sees the start of Apprenticeship Week, when the Government's National Apprenticeship Service hopes to get more employers involved in the Government-funded scheme. It particularly focuses on under-represented sectors - a key objective for the service this year.

Sadly in horticulture, outside the local authority sector, meeting this ambition is likely to remain a considerable struggle until key barriers to the involvement of the industry's predominantly small businesses are addressed. And it's not because horticulture's employers are not committed to training. On the contrary. Large numbers are engaged in training - but just not inside the Government's template. It doesn't fit.

According to research carried out last year by land-based sector skills body Lantra, over three quarters - 79 per cent - of land-based employers interviewed who employed an apprentice in the last five years did so through "apprentice-like" on-the-job training, compared to 15 per cent who had used a Government apprenticeship framework.

Obstacles for employers include the focus of funding on the 16-19 age group, which rules out some areas of horticulture for health and safety reasons even before the critical role of career-changers is factored in - but funding is by no means the only issue. Other key issues include lack of flexibility to tailor training to real business needs and skills assessments that take place outside of a work context. And too much red tape.

The UK desperately needs more people with green skills to meet a wide variety of public policy objectives, from ensuring the nation's health and food security to coping with climate change. With funding for higher education contracting, Government-backed apprenticeships have the potential to become a significant pillar of skills policy - and one in which horticulture should be heavily involved.

Recognition for horticulture within the Government-backed scheme is long overdue, but once gained it can only help apprenticeships grow, opening up even more opportunities for training from willing employers currently stymied by funding and other restrictions. Let's hope the ministers responsible take time out next week to actually listen this time.

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