Arboriculture - education and training

From short courses for craft skills to apprenticeships and even PhDs, arboriculture training providers offer plenty of options, Jack Shamash finds.

Tree owners realise that employing someone who is properly trained reduces potential risks - image: Schiesling
Tree owners realise that employing someone who is properly trained reduces potential risks - image: Schiesling

The arboriculture industry has worked hard in recent years to ensure that properly trained and qualified professionals are recognised by members of the public, as well as commercial clients, as the people to turn to for tree management.

However, a quick browse of the internet will reveal a wide - and sometimes confusing - variety of paths for those who want to train, requiring some degree of explanation. Within the industry, most people will still start at craft level. These days though, the craft-level training is as likely to be offered by independent providers as the traditional land-based colleges.

Training organisations such as Mearns & Angus Services based in Scotland, Lynher in the South West, Kielder Newport West (KNW) based in Yorkshire or GM Arb in Kent offer short courses in basic skills. These certificates, known as "tickets", are often asked for by employers.

Course approval

"Most of these training companies are either registered with Lantra or use trainers who are recognised as qualified assessors by City & Guilds," explains Arboricultural Association technical officer Simon Richmond. "It's a very flexible system."

KNW and Mearns & Angus both employ trainers on a freelance basis. Mearns & Angus training co-ordinator Hugh Thomson explains: "We are affiliated to Lantra and we use only trainers who have been approved by the organisation." Mearns & Angus currently has a list of around 50 trainers, while KNW has more than 100 on its books.

Employers who want their staff to get training will usually approach training companies or colleges to arrange suitable courses. "We try to wait until we have about four trainees before we schedule a course," says Thomson.

"We have to organise a trainer and ensure that we have a site that can host the training. Often one of the firms will make a site available. We primarily work in Scotland, around London and in the Isle of Man, because we have trainers in these areas."

Most of the private firms offer only short courses. Mearns & Angus usually offers twoor three-day courses in such subjects as use of chainsaws, use of mobile elevating work platforms or climbing techniques. The longest course lasts 14 days and is a certificate for risk assessment The same short courses can also be done at most of the land-based colleges.

Some small firms, meanwhile, have started to create their own courses in response to demand from the profession. After a series of accidents within the industry, KNW created a woodchipper course, which has proved popular and became the basis for similar courses throughout the country.

Managing director Mike John explains: "Our customers are fearful of litigation and want to show that they've taken all reasonable steps to ensure high standards, so we have had to build a set of customised tickets."

According to Richmond, there is a constant demand for training at all levels. "Tree-owners - councils, private firms, utility companies - realise that they have a responsibility not just to have good-looking trees but also to ensure that trees don't cause any damage or legal problems. The easiest way to meet this responsibility is to employ staff who are properly trained and follow established protocols and standards," he points out.

Beyond this, entrants to the industry, including school leavers, may take BTEC courses, which go to level 3 (roughly equivalent to A-level) and take one or two years. For those already employed in the industry there is also plenty of scope for training. Older staff often find that they want to spend less time doing heavy manual work and move to supervisory positions, which require formal training.

Building skills

Courses in these more advanced subjects are generally offered by land-based colleges, where the range is wide, if not daunting, due in part to the recent move to the qualitative credit framework system, in which qualifications can be built up by demonstrating skills.

The framework has a series of levels, with a rising scale of award, certificate and diploma at each. According to Richmond, the system's complexities mean that some employers do not bother trying to understand the formal qualifications (see box).

Alongside this, there is increasing interest in apprenticeship schemes, which are run by firms in conjunction with colleges. In some areas, these schemes have been slow to take off. But according to Capel Manor College deputy manager for employer services Shuna Wickham: "We've been running schemes for eight years and it has expanded year on year."

The north London college has been running trees and timber apprenticeships for the past four years. "Employees really like it," says Wickham. "We nurture them, cover all skills and ensure that we get them their tickets. They come out with a level 2 key skills diploma covering English and maths, and training in employer rights and responsibilities."

Employers wanting to take on apprentices are advised to contact colleges that may be able to introduce the firm to potential apprentices. Apprenticeships are particularly popular for young people aged between 16 and 18 because their training is paid for by the Government. Beyond this, the trainees or their employers must pay half the fees.

For students over 24, the picture is more complicated. The Train to Gain scheme, aimed at older students, closed last year. There are some grants, but they are only available to people who have never had any training to level 2. In practice, it is extremely difficult for older students to receive any meaningful grants.

Ideal system

Many of the larger firms find the apprenticeship system ideal for their needs. Gristwood & Toms carries out tree work for several London boroughs and operations manager Karl Underwood explains: "Most of the people who come straight from college are a liability for the first six months.

"They don't know where to put things or how to stay safe and they can't work to the necessary standards and speeds. Our apprentices learn rapidly. They stay for 18 months and by the time they've finished they become trainee climbers and will start to do all kinds of tree work - but still usually under supervision."

Higher levels of training, either full or part-time, are largely the preserve of land-based colleges, which increasingly offer distance learning with lessons taught over the internet.

Myerscough MSc programme in arboriculture course leader Dr Mark Johnston says: "For our BSc degree courses, we usually take people who have had two years in the industry. With our MSc course we look for people who have degrees in subjects such as architecture, planning, horticulture and landscaping. We get a lot of international students.

"There is a great deal of interest from people who want to work for the facilities companies such as Capita or who want to be part of an interdisciplinary team or work as consultants. The MSc course is accredited by the Institute of Chartered Foresters, which is highly respected within the profession." However, with the current upheaval in higher education funding, most colleges have yet to decide what fees they will set for next year.

Another recent development is the rise of independent training firms working at a higher level. David Dowson founded Tree Life Arboricultural Consultancy, which puts trainees through level 4 and level 6 of the ABC Awards in arboriculture.

"We like to feel that we are less bureaucratic than the colleges," he says. Much of the studying is done part-time or by distance learning and although fees are slightly higher than for college courses, Dowson maintains that they represent excellent value for money.

Understanding the qualifications

Levels 1 and 2 are craft levels, levels 3 and 4 are supervisory, 5 and 6 are management/planning, while 7 and 8 allow practitioners to undertake consultancy and policy-making.

Other qualifications such as HNDs are being phased out but will still be available at some colleges for a while.

- At Level 2, comparable to GCSE, trainees can work for qualitative credit framework system certificate, award or diploma based on practical skills and assessed in the workplace, a full-time (10-week) course in City & Guilds tree surgery or exams to be an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist or European Arboricultural Council (EAC) European tree worker, launched in the UK last year.

- Level 3 (A-Level standard) are BTEC courses and also more advanced ISA and EAC qualifications.

- Levels 5 and 6 are the relatively new foundation degrees run by colleges and honours degree (BSc) courses respectively.

- Levels 7 and 8 are postgraduate (MSc or PhD) courses for those who already have in-depth experience of the profession.

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