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Speaking at the Garden Centre Association annual conference, RHS head of regional development Andrea Vansittart made a plea to garden centres to sign up to the scheme, which Squires HR director Jo Ripley said had been a success for 80 pupils led by 15 mentors and 15 teachers.
She said she hopes to take the scheme out in other regions of the country and the the scheme had built new skills and started pupils talking about plants and "at best" led to a fundamental shift in how people perceive horticulture".
The schools had two projects to choose from: ‘Creating a School Garden’ or ‘Growing Your Community Garden’. Each team was allocated a mentor from either Squire’s Garden Centres or RHS Wisley to help them plan, develop and design their ideas. Each school team presented their ideas at a final assessment day in December at RHS Wisley. Prizes were awarded for teamwork (won by Surbiton High School), innovation (won by Notre Dame School, Lingfield), best pupil’s choice (Sir William Perkins School, Chertsey) and best overall project (Bishop David Brown School, Woking).
Vansittart said there was an "erosion" in horticulture skills, with 70 per cent of businesses struggling to attract new staff. She said the RHS campaign for school gardening had 23,000 schools involved, adding that "there is a space for horticulture on the curriculum for secondary schools but it competes with other areas".
The RHS has developed a pilot secondary school project in response, with Squire's piloting the scheme.
She said she wanted it to "inspire young people to think about horticulture and gain careers insight and really importantly to get them to understand about plants", adding "there is this real disconnect from nature".
The pilot programme from Wisley had 80 pupils in year 8/9 and linked to work with science/food, technology and D&T.
Ripley said: "We struggle to recruit horticulturally knowledgeable people with experience, so we were delighted when the RHS approached us. This was a great opportunity to engage with local schools. We don't get the chance to do careers talks in schools as much as we used to.
She said the gains were to attract and engage future talent and increase activity with local schools across the eight week project.
Ideas the children had were for QR scans, time lapse videos and websites linked to making mini gardens.
Squires managing director Dennis Espeley said the sche,e was not too onerous to run for the business and Squires were pleased to encourage young people into horticulture.
Ripley said the process was "like taking on a weekender and three years later they're off to university and you don't want them to leave. These young people won't come to work for Squires but might come to work in the horticulture industry so it's beneficial for all of us."
The winners, Connor and Andrew, made model gardens and planted 500 daffodils and sold cut flowers.
Now both want to go to horticulture college and "epitomised what these hort projects are all about", Ripley said, adding she "couldn't complain if we don't do anything to recruit".