A career in horticulture just got hip with youth

The RHS, which earlier this summer called for gardening to be high on the education agenda, has found several captive audiences. Not only is the Government paying attention, but also sitting up and listening are the very people it is desperate to coax into horticulture.

Image: HW
Image: HW

School leavers are signing up for college courses in queues long enough to leave waiting lists. This is a big change for a sector mired for years in skills shortages and worries about from where the next generation of professional horticulturalists would come.

Dr Simon Thornton Wood, RHS director of science and learning, called on the new coalition to heed horticulture as part of the RHS's Campaign for School Gardening. This initiative is one example of the environment rising up agendas for everything from politics and society to health and leisure, says David Winn, partnership manager at sector-skills council Lantra.

"The growing popularity among younger people is probably a sign of changing priorities in society," he adds. "People are thinking more about the environment, recycling and climate change - they do more in their gardens and get into parks. What's more, the recession means fewer go on holiday, and all of a sudden careers in IT and finance don't seem so alluring."

It is too early to rustle up hard-and-fast figures on admissions for 2010-11, but Winn knows of one or two horticulture courses that are fully subscribed. Others may not be chock-full of applications, but the shift from mature would-be horticulturists to youngsters at the start of their careers is more than noticeable.

Youngsters used to make up about a fifth of the intake on the horticulture course at Askham Bryan College near York, the rest being career changers. This year, four-fifths of the intake are in their first flush of youth. David Campbell, section head for horticulture and landscape industries, says intake targets for 16-18-year-olds have been surpassed.

This is good not only for beefing up skills. After all: "Sixteen-year-olds is where the funding is" from a Government that puts a premium on getting them young, he says. There is another factor. The new qualifications and credit framework (QCF) is being hailed as the biggest shake-up in vocational training for decades (see box over).

QCF is billed as "bite-sized learning" or "pick-and-mix education", allowing trainees to hone their skills to match their wants and employers' demands. Down on the college campus, this means Campbell can offer "sexy modules like design and landscape to try and tailor delivery to help 16-year-olds on to the vocational area of their choice".

Campbell does not fall for all the QCF hype, though: "All in all it's good, but I am cautious. It's great to see youngsters coming though. However, will 16- to 18-year-olds stay in the career? Trends seem to suggest they won't.

"But 25-30-year-olds looking for stability are perhaps more likely to stay in the industry. You also need to think of job prospects and salary - take out any one of these factors and you have to worry about where the 16- 18-year-olds will go. Funding should follow 16- 25-year-olds, as it used to. Mature students are also great for group dynamics."

RHS head of accreditation Philip Windle is one of many education chiefs changing curricula. The society has launched 10 qualifications to tie in with the QCF in September. "We are seeing a lot more interest in horticulture from younger people," he says. "Our new courses are more flexible, smaller and focused to allow progress through the levels and therefore their careers," perhaps reducing the risk of youngsters dropping out.

Madeline Hall, head of Capel Manor in Enfield, is also happy. Expressions of interest and hard applications for courses across the board are up by more than 25 per cent. She and colleagues have been "taken aback by the huge level of interest". There is also a gender dimension. Young women are jumping into once men-only spheres.

Arboriculture, for example, is a big hit with women who are good climbers, strong on theory and savvy enough to see good career progression as tree officers, she points out. And career prospects are rosy, with a 100 per cent success rate in arboriculture and 85 per cent in horticulture - the drop caused by garden-centre closures and other casualties of the recession.

Hall is one of several education chiefs to pick up on the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show debut of a 15-year-old this July. James Callicott - bright, articulate, creative - has the hallmarks of a high-flier in waiting and is the modern face of horticulture, she reckons. For Hall, there is another gender dimension that youngsters may have picked up on.

"What was revealing about that story is how horticulture has become a girl magnet," she says of Callicott's popularity. "He got interested in horticulture and found that girls suddenly took an interest in him. This confounds the fusty image of muddy wellies that has held back the career for far too long."


It's official - Aaron Hickman is a horticultural high-flier, having recently beaten more than 1,500 other hopefuls to become the Institute of Horticulture's young horticulturist of the year for the north region. This is in no small part due to training that is hands-on and highly targeted.

Hickman is currently studying for a level 3 work-based diploma in horticulture at Askham Bryan College near York. Like most high rollers, he has to juggle workloads and splits his time between the classroom and Askham Bryan grounds.

He has already achieved a national diploma in horticulture at the college, won student of the year and also interim student of the month for his work on the campus during class time and in his own time.

"With this list of credits to his name, his future prospects for achieving his goal of a successful career in horticulture are well on track," says David Campbell, section head for horticulture and landscape industries at Askham Bryan.

Qualifications and Credit Framework

"The number of unskilled jobs this country needs is falling," says the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), which draws up educational training. "People looking for jobs in future will need skills, and they need to start getting them now."

Enter the qualifications and credit framework (QCF), the new training system that is "good news for both employers and learners", the QCDA insists. It aims to ensure that employers can take on new staff with skills closely matching the job.

"We've all got busy lives," says a representative. "QCF is made up of smaller units so you can learn at a pace that suits you. You can build up your qualifications bit by bit."

There are nine levels, from entry level to level 8, and every qualification comes in award, certificate or diploma. Typical courses include a level 2 certificate in principles of plant growth and a level 8 award in strategic direction and leadership.

Every qualification in the QCF is made up of units, and each unit has a credit value that tells you how long the unit takes to complete. A credit is about 10 hours' work, so a unit with a credit value of four takes about 40 hours to do. Around 37 credits can win you a diploma.

So much for the student. According to Lantra, the land-based sector skills council, employers benefit from the QCF because it offers highly targeted "bite-sized" learning and the ability to pick and mix units to suit businesses' needs.

"The QCF lets you put together your achievements from different places," says Lantra manager David Winn. "So your qualification could be made up of units from your training at work and units that you completed at college. It's a hard-and-fast measurement of the level of achievement of prospective employees. It recognises in-house training within a national framework and describes achievement in terms everyone can understand."

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