The announcement in the spring Budget of an extra £500m for the Government's Post-16 Skills Plan to introduce a vocational equivalent to A-levels has been welcomed by the industry but experts say it is important to ensure that horticulture's needs are met when new courses are developed.
Chancellor Philip Hammond says the courses, named "T-levels", will reduce around 13,000 confusing vocational courses to 15 clear technical routes, including one for agriculture, environmental and animal care. Each route will be overseen by a single awarding body. Hammond announced that T-level students will have more than 50 per cent more hours of training, including a "high-quality" three-month work placement for every student. The two-year courses will run alongside A-levels and apprenticeships, starting in "pathfinder" form in September 2019.
HTA academy and careers manager Penny Evans says: "I think it's great that the Government are focusing attention on alternative routes and I think what's important is that we ensure that whatever qualifications we have are set by industry. The key thing is what everybody wants is parity and that all these three routes are equally valuable. The HTA will be looking to support that."
BALI chief executive Wayne Grills agrees that T-levels could be good for horticulture if "implemented in the right way". If not, they could fail and in a big way. "We've had 60 skills ministers in the space of 30 years of education in the UK, which just doesn't provide consistency." He adds that previous innovations such as individual learning accounts "didn't seem to work". Grills is due to meet skills minister Robert Halfon to outline what horticulture needs from vocational courses.
However, Grills says students spending more time on work placements is "a great opportunity", adding: "T-levels would need to turn people out who are ready for work. That's ultimately what employers are looking for. As long as employers see them in the same way as A-levels, that will be the really crucial thing." He still sees a bit of an age gap with employers favouring traditional HND, A-levels and degree routes, but suggests this will change with time. "I think some of it is a cultural thing."
There is some confusion as to how T-Levels will dovetail into apprenticeships. A group of business leaders and representatives of associated organisations - local authorities, the National Trust, English Heritage and the RHS - have already been working together for two years on the Government's trailblazer apprenticeships programme. Some standards have already been completed, with more in progress.
National group training manager at Ground Control and BALI technical director Neil Huck says the group has asked the Government what impact T-levels will have on apprenticeships but is yet to receive a reply. "From what we know so far it seems OK but we need to make sure it's a technical quality that actually reflects what the industry needs. We can do this by making sure we work together. We're liaising with the National Land Based College, City & Guilds and Lantra already."
Another concern is moving from around 14 awarding bodies in horticulture to one. Grills says the Government is "not doing themselves any favours" by boiling down 13,000 routes down to just 15. "People will wonder what they will get." But he adds: "It can be done so long as the assessment criteria is specific to horticulture."
Evans suggests that distilling courses into 15 routes is "a risk" but points out that the industry is "good at coming together and making sure that we're well represented".
Fresh produce More cash in Budget but 'missed opportunity' lamented
The food and farming research sector has welcomed a further £270m in the Budget for the "disruptive technologies" of biotech, robotic systems and driverless vehicles.
University of Lincoln professor of agri-food technology Simon Pearson says: "We believe it is a key emerging and enabling technology which will have a significant impact in the horticulture sector for many years to come. This reflects the need to drive productivity and that many growers are having difficulties in finding labour.
"The details of the Budget announcement are not yet clear and whether horticulture can exploit this tranche of funding. However, we welcome the recognition of the importance of robotics for the industrial sector."
NFU president Meurig Raymond adds that the chancellor's announcement on capping business rates increases "will be welcome news to members with small diversified farming businesses", but warns that a controversial, if delayed, rise in National Insurance contributions for the self-employed "will have a detrimental impact for farmers".
He adds: "Many farmers will feel that this Budget was a missed opportunity, particularly that the chancellor did not see fit to extend capital allowances as part of productivity plans. Farming needs to invest to increase productivity so it can compete post-Brexit."
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