Dowbiggin to retire after 33 years at Capel Manor

Capel Manor College principal Steve Dowbiggin will retire in August 2017 after 33 years in the role, making him the longest-serving principal of a further-education college in the UK.

Dowbiggin: "Career changers are the lifeblood of the sector". Image: HW
Dowbiggin: "Career changers are the lifeblood of the sector". Image: HW

Dowbiggin said he leaves the college well-placed to work within the Sainsbury review published this summer, a plan for the radical overhaul of post-16 education, involving the creation of 15 new technical education pathways including agriculture, environment and animal care.

A graduate of Wye College, Dowbiggin was previously head of department at Hadlow College of Agriculture (Kent) from 1977 to 1982 and worked as a lecturer at Houghall College, Durham. He was made a fellow of the Institute of Horticulture (IoH) in 1988 and awarded an OBE in 2007. Capel has moved from 138 part-time horticulture students when he began in 1982 to 2,012 in 2015-16 and up to 2,500 in 2016-17.

Dowbiggin said a career as a market gardener before he entered horticulture teaching stood him in good stead to work with students. "I'm lucky to have had two careers. Having done practical first helped me to make it make sense to students."

Industry efforts to tackle skills shortages in the sector have not succeeded because the focus has not been right, he added. "Career changers are the lifeblood of the sector. It's lovely to have 16-18s but eight out of 10 successful horticulturists I know do something else first. We should be looking at recruiting more career changers and making their route into the industry easier.

"The sector is still not attractive as a career option, whether because of respect, pay or titles. Therefore we are still facing a significant skills shortage and that's affecting our ability to deliver to potential." That means London parks, for instance, are "Rolls Royces rusting in the garage".

Dowbiggin said it has been a privilege to see Capel, in north London, develop as the youngest of the country's land-based colleges. He added: "It has become more difficult for colleges to include relevant practical experience in their qualifications and the loss in the whole sector of sandwich years and pre-college years, but I'm quite pleased that using students to run Capel Manor (gardens, farm and retail), even though they work as volunteers, means we've been able to keep a lot of that.

"Vocational education will become increasingly specialist and employers will get more involved in making sure they get out of the system what they want. But I don't think apprentices will be the big answer. They will help but there will always be the need to train people and fast track them in colleges to go out into the sector."

RHS work in primary education has been admirable, he added, but 12-16-year-olds is where horticulture needs to be meaningful. He suggested that every secondary school should have a glasshouse and every student should grow their own meal and bouquet as part of the curriculum.

Dowbiggin said: "I love the industry and though I've been offered a non-executive role using marketing and governance roles outside it I still need to earn some money and I'd like to earn it by contributing to the land-based sector."

He added that he has no regrets about his career but has been seen as an over-passionate "Marmite" character, meaning people love or hate him, so he has not had roles such as IoH president or RHS council membership, but added: "I will look back on former Capel students in the industry doing important jobs and think I've played a small part in getting them where they are."

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