Over the next year the new system of apprenticeships, which the industry has been developing over the past few years, will finally come into effect. Supporters believe that it will make training easier and more relevant for the horticulture and landscape sectors.
BALI technical director Neil Huck, who chaired the group that has set the new apprenticeship standards for horticulture and landscape, believes the changes can only help the industry. "Employers will have more say," he says. "The new system will show that qualified apprentices will have the skills to do the jobs they are asked to perform."
The actual standards have been established by the employers, rather than being set by colleges. Within the standards, all employees will be expected to have a core knowledge. In addition, there will be more specialised skills that are tailored to the needs of the individual firms.
The new standards for horticulture and landscape were established by a working group of industry figures and were approved by the Government in April. All horticulture/landscape operatives will be expected to understand the benefits of green space, have a general understanding of how the business works, appreciate health and safety, be able to work as a team, have skills in planting and be able to use relevant machinery.
Those involved primarily in landscape construction will have to be able to use angle grinders to cut stone, work to plans, install paving and sort out cracked stones or damaged brickwork. Horticulturists will need to have the skills to maintain plants and soft landscaping, look after grass and do basic planting and propagation.
A separate standard has been set for supervisors. Again, there are core skills that all supervisors should have - in management, health and safety, customer care, plant identification, tools maintenance, vegetation control and project appraisals. But there are also more specialised skills in landscape construction.
They are expected to be able to plan works, interpret diagrams, evaluate broken stone and brickwork and assess the work done by team members. For horticultural supervisors there is more emphasis on such things as planning turf renovation, developing programmes of maintenance and setting up drip feeders and irrigation systems.
The new system is expected to start next year. The current system of work-based apprenticeships will be phased out by 2020. Huck explains: "We want what industry wants. In the past, a landscape apprentice might do one patio during the course of the apprenticeship. Because of the standards, apprentices will have enough specialised knowledge to be able to do the job properly."
Under the existing system, most of the training is done by land-based colleges or other training providers. However, under the new system firms will be able to organise the training themselves. In practice, larger companies will probably have more in-house training facilities, while smaller outfits will continue to use colleges and specialist training providers. Trainers will have to be registered with the Skills Funding Agency, part of the Department for Business Innovation & Skills. Trainers will not be allowed to do their own assessment.
Employers have broadly welcomed the new changes. Neil Cain, operations director at John O'Conner Grounds Maintenance, feels that the scheme offers great opportunities. "The new system means we can look afresh at the skills that we need to allow the industry to grow," he says. "This should be a boost to recruitment."
There will be a voucher system to pay for the training and assessment. Much of the money will come from a levy on larger firms within the industry - those with a wage bill of more than £3m.
The Government describes the training as "rigorous and holistic". Most of the testing will be done at the end of the course so that apprentices will be able to show what they have learnt during the two years of training.
The exact details of how assessment will be done is still being discussed. Under the current system, apprentices keep a portfolio showing examples of the various projects on which they have worked. This demonstrates that the trainee has done a particular variety of work, but critics point out that it will not demonstrate that they have retained the skills. Under the new system, most of the assessment will be done at the end of the apprenticeship period.
There have been a number of events for trainers and a scheme of assessment is now taking shape. The new system will feature written exams at the end of the apprenticeship. The apprentices will also have to keep a journal to show what work they have done. Finally, they will have to do a "showcase" project - for example, a new patio or some impressive planting - to demonstrate their practical skills.
Unsurprisingly, in an industry that has seen so many changes in such a short time, not everyone is signed up to the new system yet. Huck describes the situation with the land-based colleges as "hit and miss", adding: "They are not all on board yet."
Capel Manor College principal Steve Dowbiggin, who is happy to work within the new system, agrees that training organisations have to execute a delicate balancing act. "We're walking a tightrope.
We want to make training more accessible and relevant and yet we don't want to see a diminution of standards."
However, he adds that the newly published standards demand that employees demonstrate a large number of skills - more than under the old system. "If trainers don't meet the standards, they won't get the money. So I can't imagine that standards will fall."
Dowbiggin envisages that only larger employers will do their own training. Most firms will still rely on colleges, which can offer specialised courses to small outfits. "We're happy to work in the new system," he says. "We're already exploring how to make use of the new arrangements. Over the last six months we've spent a lot of time talking to employers and students, asking 'what works for you?'"
Over the years the various apprenticeship schemes have tried to provide employees with the basic skills they need to walk into a job yet ensure they have the sort of detailed understanding that will enable them to turn British land-based industries into a world-beating force. The backers of the new scheme believe this latest initiative has finally struck the right balance.
Setting the standards
Landscaper Jody Lidgard (above) runs Bespoke Outdoor Spaces and is director of the Landscape Skills Academy. He is part of the team that has developed the new standards for apprentices. "We're just finalising the details," he says.
"The new scheme aims to produced joined-up thinking. It will be very good for the industry. At present qualified apprentices can only do half a job. They still need extra training.
"The Landscape Skills Academy is the training wing of the Association of Professional Landscapers. We will run the apprenticeship with Myerscough College.
"The new training scheme won't be particularly involved in IT or business skills, except where necessary. We're more interested in basic landscaping skills. However, we hope the new apprenticeship will bring young people to accept a corporate culture and give them the specialist training to ensure they are always in demand."
Details of new system
- The new system will come into force in 2017. The old system will be phased out by 2020.
- The new scheme is organised by employers. Employees will have to do core training and also learn more specialist skills that are relevant to their own jobs.
- Training can be done by employers or external providers such as colleges or training organisations. Apprentices will have to be assessed by an external body.
- Testing will be done at the end of the course - by a combination of written exam, a work journal and projects to "showcase" skills.
- The system will be funded by a levy on firms with a wage bill of more than £3m.
- There will be no external qualification such as BTEC or NVQ. Apprentices will simply be given a formal certificate to say they have completed an apprenticeship.