Horticultural colleges have worked hard over the past few years to meet the needs of employers in the sector. Under pressure from the Government, they are changing their courses to ensure that apprentices have the skills they need for their chosen careers.
Now they are moving even further in that direction. The colleges are forming partnerships with big firms to create special apprenticeships, tailored to the needs of individual companies. The colleges suggest that these "bespoke courses" could herald a more constructive relationship with the industry.
Capel Manor College in north London has led the change, creating new schemes with English Heritage, the National Trust and arboriculture firm Bartlett Trees. Capel Manor principal Steve Dowbiggin believes that the shift will benefit all parties. "We have to service the land-based sector," he says. "The majority of our entrants are adults. Our challenge is to make them employable - and to do that we need to work closely with the employers."
In part, the closer relationship with industry has been forced on the college by reduced Government funding. Finance is still available for 16- to 18-year-olds. The number of students in this age group went up from 630 to 733 at Capel Manor in the past year. Degree students can still get loans for their courses.
Trouble finding funding
However, students aged 19 and over now have trouble finding funding. Last year the Government funded 1,900 students in this category at Capel Manor. This year it is only 1,300. Often they have to pay for their own tuition through loans or find employers willing to pay fees for apprenticeships. Capel Manor hopes that the new apprenticeships can help bridge the gap.
Walking through the beautifully laid out gardens at Capel Manor, the importance of sponsorship is clear. A line of model gardens is sponsored by paving firm Marshalls. Last month hedges were covered in horticultural fleece, designed to look like spiderwebs. This was put up for a series of Halloween walks - "Creepy in the College" - that have been a big money-spinner in recent years. "We have a lot of commercial activity run by the students themselves," says Dowbiggin. "It has been a huge success."
A group of six apprentices for Bartlett Trees will start a training programme in January. Dowbiggin hopes that they will be able to gain more supervisory skills because of the new relationship. "Up to level two, they will follow the main programme for arborists. After that, they will be doing more work on specifying trees, surveying trees and tree valuation."
To meet Bartlett Trees' needs, the college has bought a timber trailer with a grab so that apprentices can gain experience moving large tree trunks. It will also be running the relevant City & Guilds qualification so that they can get their ticket to use this sort of equipment in the course of their work.
A number of other organisations have also been developing their own bespoke courses with Capel Manor. English Heritage apprentices do an RHS qualification as part of their course at the college. Glendale, the Wildlife Trust and Tottenham Hotspur FC also work with the college to create their own apprenticeships and nine apprentices have been recruited by the National Trust.
Capel Manor stresses that these courses are genuinely tailored to the employers. "We haven't simply rebadged our ordinary courses," Dowbiggin points out. "They are adapted to specific requirements."
Looking after housing estates
Other educational establishments are taking a similar tack. Pershore College in Warwickshire has teamed up with Sanctuary Housing Association and taken on six apprentices to look after the estates managed by the organisation. Not surprisingly, the housing association is very keen to get trainees working on pesticide application, so this is prioritised in the training. Sixteen apprentices with The Royal Parks are also being trained at Pershore on block-release sessions.
Working with Oak View Nursery, Writtle College in Essex has altered its landscaping courses because it wanted apprentices to be able to do hard landscaping. Writtle also works with football grounds, including West Ham FC, Arsenal FC and Wembley. It has revised the course on groundsmanship so that the apprentices from Arsenal FC can do the training online.
Reaseheath College in Cheshire is working with Sainsbury's, which wants its suppliers to train apprentices to a high level. The supermarket is currently in the process of recruiting apprentices and the bespoke apprenticeships are expected to start next year.
Most of the colleges suggest that it is relatively easy to start the process of creating specially tailored apprenticeships. "We have very strong links to our ex-students," says Capel Manor's Dowbiggin, adding: "And we always form good relationships with firms that we've dealt with in the past."
Writtle uses social media and YouTube to demonstrate the possibilities and senior staff are negotiating directly with potential clients. Reaseheath markets its courses to all the relevant firms and schools within a 50-mile radius. All the horticultural colleges express a willingness to shape their courses to fit the needs of the industry.
Colleges stress that it is important to manage the relationships with employers. Caroline Jones, employer engagement manager at Pershore, explains: "We have regular feedback from employers and we visit the apprentices at their work." Capel Manor has a special committee that discusses the feedback given by the employers.
There are potential pitfalls in this process. The colleges have to resist pressure to reduce the quality of the courses or to compromise on safety or environmental concerns. Nigel Beckford, course manager for horticulture at Writtle, confirms that quality control is an issue. "We have to keep up the quality of our delivery," he says. "If we expand too fast we might compromise quality." To keep up with expansion of apprenticeships, he has had to take on more staff. Any bespoke apprenticeships would have to be appropriately staffed.
Colleges also have to manage the expectations of employers. "They want everything immediately," says Dowbiggin. "They want perfectly formed employees who can do everything from the start. Often what they want is not achievable, although they will get the employees they want at the end of the process."
There are also safety issues. "We are not prepared to teach anything contrary to health and safety or which is not professional," he adds. "Sometimes people come forward with proposals that are not sound from the point of view of skills, health and safety or logistics. We can design something that can meet their needs but is attractive economically and legally."
There are limits to the sort of bespoke courses that can be offered. "The market is huge, but it is regional," Dowbiggin points out.
"It is quite difficult to do anything nationally. It is best to concentrate on regional specialisms and working in your local area rather than trying to set up some kind of national framework."
Some of the largest firms are less interested in apprenticeships and more concerned to develop their own schemes. Christine Middleton, team leader of land-based apprenticeships at Reaseheath, says: "The big firms prefer to do in-house training."
Some colleges are developing more specialist qualifications directly designed for the needs of very specific portions of industry. Capel Manor, for example, is developing a special qualification with Marshalls, which would like its installers to have some kind of certificate of competence to reassure potential customers.
Capel Manor vice-principal Malcolm Goodwin believes this could be made part of the existing apprenticeships. Alternatively, it could be done as an additional course for trained landscapers. "There is a massive skills shortage in the South East," he says. "Marshalls wants to make sure that its products are used properly."
The move towards the new tailored apprenticeships comes against a background of major change in training. Under the Government-backed "Trailblazers" scheme, groups from industry and education are currently trying to create apprenticeships that are more relevant for organisations and their trainees. Some people have suggested that trainees who have successfully completed an apprenticeship should be awarded a qualification that could become an industry standard.
Colleges are embracing this new agenda. They want to work more closely with industry and they believe that specialised apprenticeships could be one way of winning support and creating a more highly skilled workforce.