Qualifications - Finding your level

Despite a raft of changes in the educational system, qualifications are still the best way to demonstrate competence, maintains Gavin McEwan.

Studying: formal qualifications can give job candidates a head start with employers - image: iStockphoto
Studying: formal qualifications can give job candidates a head start with employers - image: iStockphoto

Horticulture has often been popular with people keen to move away from classroom-based education into something more hands-on. It is still possible to get into horticulture at the ground floor - in fact many lifelong horticulturists started off doing casual work at a local nursery or garden centre and never left.

But to give yourself a head start and increase your options, you should consider getting a formal qualification either before you hit the jobs market, or while working.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of qualifications out there, and to make matters worse the way they are classified has been changed. Although this should eventually simplify matters, in the short term it may cause confusion between students, colleges and employers.

The Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), which came into effect last year, aims to bring the UK's further education into harmony with those of other EU member states.

"Higher national certificates (HNCs) and higher national diplomas (HNDs) are being adapted to fit in with QCF, although in some cases the terms are still being used for clarity," says skills council Lantra's industry partnership manager David Winn. "What has gone is the NVQs, which have been replaced by work-based diplomas."

Under QCF, every unit and qualification has a points value, with one credit representing 10 hours of learning time. There are three different grades of qualification - awards denote one to 12 credits, certificates 13 to 36 credits and diplomas 37 credits or more.

What's more, each qualification has nine levels of difficulty, with Level 1 providing basic skills, Level 3 being roughly equivalent to A-level standard, and Level 6 representing an advanced professional diploma. The title of every qualification within the new framework reflects the grade, level of difficulty and general content.

Scotland has the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Network which has run since 2001. Information on this can be found at www.scqf.org.uk. Meanwhile, two terms familiar to employers - BTEC and NPTC - are less widely used as these bodies have merged with Edexcel and City & Guilds respectively.

Apprenticeships back on the agenda

Another significant change has been the return of apprenticeships as a way into horticultural work that allows you to earn while you learn.

Schemes run by local authority parks departments were once a common route into all manner of horticultural work and it is worth asking your council directly if they are offering this option again. However, more marked is the recent appearance of apprenticeship schemes in areas where previously there were none, such as garden retail and tree care.

The result has been a sharply growing number of apprentices, and the Government has this year pledged to expand such schemes nationally by a further 40,000 places. The upshot is you can now work as an apprentice for employers as diverse as B&Q, the Royal Parks, the Cooperative's vegetable farms or even your favourite football club.

Alternatively, if you can't find an employer in your area offering the sort of work you are interested in, give your local college a call and they may be able to act as a matchmaker. You may even manage to persuade your existing employer to put you through a formal apprenticeship rather than provide piecemeal training.

However long you have been in your chosen industry, there is no reason not to continue to learn and get qualified in some way, allowing you to increase your confidence and take on greater responsibility. This could mean a work-based qualifications such as the HTA's diploma in garden retail, or a continuing professional development programme such as that run by the greenkeeping body the British and International Golf Greenkeepers' Association.

Reassessing degree benefits

Higher education, meanwhile, is also going through profound changes that are perhaps not so encouraging for those considering a more academic route into horticulture. The increase in the maximum amount which universities can charge in tuition fees is expected to particularly hit those subjects which offer graduates less of a salary premium when they complete their degree.

However, as our report on horticultural science indicates, while graduates in that sector may not attain fabulous wealth, they can expect some uplift on their salary when they enter the jobs market.

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