Horticulture is a Cinderella industry that rarely features in the ambitions of the average 16-year-old as a career option, even though their generation cares passionately about the environment and the future of the planet.
The challenges are well known. We need to attract more high-achieving 16-year-olds to the sector while continuing to recruit adults and career changers, and provide worthwhile employment for those with the wide range of abilities
and interests that this wonderful industry attracts and supports.
The Government is developing a new “gold-standard” qualification called the T levels. The horticulture T level will be available from September 2023 and is being designed to attract the brightest 16-year-olds to the sector and develop their skills and knowledge so they can enter employment when they are 18, or go on to further study.
It will focus on innovative technologies, core knowledge and vocational skills, and will involve at least nine weeks’ work experience. The two-year qualification will be equivalent to three A levels and will attract UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) points. It will replace many of the level 3 qualifications that confuse employers and students alike.
This is a timely initiative. A survey of 70,000 recent graduates showed that at least 20% are financially worse off as a result of their studies than they would have been had they taken further education, done an apprenticeship or gone straight into employment. Horticulture needs T level graduates because many of its vacancies and hard-to-fill positions are at the skilled/technician level, not degree and postgraduate level.
March’s Budget confirmed the Government’s commitment to put further-education colleges back at the heart of local communities and at the centre of its skills strategy by investing £4bn in them. This is over and above the significant commitments already made to funding T level development and will ensure their skills revolution leads, not follows, changes in working practices driven by new technology and innovation.
When he was mayor of London, Boris Johnson supported further-education colleges. Capel Manor developed a specialist role focused on cost-effectively meeting the land-based education and training needs of Greater London. Since becoming prime minister, Johnson has reaffirmed the importance of further education by saying: “It is a great thing that 50% of our kids should have the ambition to go to university, but it is equally important that other kids acquire the skills they need that can be just as valuable, and it is vital we invest in further education and skills.”
The biggest problem areas for horticulture include diversity — from salad growers to arborists, heritage gardening and landscaping/garden design. The sector is made up of a myriad of sole traders and small and medium-sized enterprises. Employer groups represent their members, not the sector as a whole, and often no one speaks for the small horticulturists who define the sector. No-one outside the sector really understands what horticulture is and the average 16-year-old school pupil does not know enough about it to consider it as a career.
The success of horticulture as a career or interest that helps people in distress or difficulty has become its defining image to many. Young people and their parents often see it as something for those in trouble, not as a rewarding career of choice. The myth that horticulture is a poorly-paid occupation also needs to be challenged. None of this is new and there have been initiatives that tried to resolve these matters, but nothing as yet has made a difference because they failed to earn horticulture the profile and exposure in schools that an industry of its size and importance merits.
But past failure is no reason to stop trying. The education secretary of state is now the pro-further education Gavin Williamson, while two of the strongest advocates in modern times for the benefits of further education, Professor Alison Wolf and Philip Augar, are advisers. Former skills minister Robert Halfon MP is chair of the Parliamentary Education Committee. This alignment of the planets in favour of further education has never been seen before, meaning we must try again.
Those who need to choose the new T level when it becomes available in 2023 are currently 13 years old, so if this new initiative is to have any chance of redefining our sector’s attractiveness as a career for 16-year-olds, we need take action now to make sure that we:
- Have a simple message that resonates with young people We should rebrand all horticultural and associated industries under a new “environmental industries” banner.
- Secure exposure in school years 7-11 It is inconceivable that our teenagers do not study horticulture — a £23bn-a-year industry that employs 568,700 people and makes a significant economic, social and environmental contribution to all our lives. It should be a significant part of the core curriculum and environmental studies — including horticulture, agriculture, ecology and conservation — as well as a GCSE option alongside the sciences.
- Work together to ensure maximum return on investment The RHS has great ambitions in this area and has already invested heavily with support from others in its horticulture in schools, Plan It and careers advice initiatives. The Government, employer groups, colleges, charities, Chartered Institute
- of Horticulture and related organisations should urgently pool resources to develop, fund and sustain a national campaign to ensure that horticulture is taught in secondary schools. A support network needs to be developed to give every secondary school access to horticultural and related facilities/experiences that already exist by introducing a scheme such as the CEVAS (Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme) farm-visiting programme that is proving so successful.
Dr Steve Dowbiggin is chair of the T level panel for agriculture, environment, land management and production