With 25 years' experience in the industry, Ken Crafer, head of horticulture at Dorset's Kingston Maurward College, has in recent years sought to address what he sees as the lack of a course structure specific to the needs of the garden retail sector.
"There hasn't been an established career structure in the industry," he says. "Until five years ago I was a director of the Millbrook Garden Company and was always hearing people saying 'someone should do something'. Eventually, I thought, that someone might as well be me."
After a stint creating a "fork-to-fork" horticulture programme at a school in Kent, Crafer came to Kingston Maurward three-and-a-half years ago intent on creating a more industry-focused approach.
A fresh approach
"I have redesigned the second year of the level 3 extended diploma in horticulture course to end at Easter when the industry is looking for good people, rather than July when the season is largely over," he says.
"Garden centres are still keen on full-time general horticulture courses, which under-18s can do for free, and there is still a huge market for them. There's a particular dearth of young people with good plant knowledge. But training specifically for the garden centre industry is still relatively new."
This is partly down the sector "falling between two stools", he explains. "The big issue for garden centre training is that there are two different sector skills councils covering what it does - Lantra on the horticulture side and Skillsmart, which covers retailing."
Crafer's has also created a foundation degree in retail horticulture management at the college. "Most horticulture qualifications don't have a huge retail element in them, though some do include business management or customer service," he points out.
"But this is the only one of its type and breaks most of the usual academic rules. It doesn't follow the academic year. And rather than delivering it at the college, I take students to the best garden centres around the country so they see the best innovations."
The course covers 12 elements from plant science to law, each requiring two assignments to be completed. Most unsupervised learning happens at the students' own workplaces, where Crafer provides support by email and telephone. "They also have a virtual learning environment with more than 300 pages of text and information currently available to use as an instant resource before they start looking elsewhere on the internet," he adds.
"It's for people who may have got into the industry by accident, rather than having planned it out. Their skill set will have developed on the job and may be okay, but may be ready for some higher-level management skills applicable to their workplace."
The degree is assessed by nearby Bournemouth University. "Because it leads to a recognised higher education qualification, it reduces the cost to the garden centre, which is typically around £1,000 per year over three years," says Crafer. "But it's all highly relevant - students are adding value back into the business straight away." Crafer also co-authored the HTA's level 3 diploma in garden retail, so they "mesh together" and there is a logical follow-on".
The foundation degree is a three-year course that began in 2009 and the first intake of four students is now midway through its second year. One of them, Clare Hammond, is nursery supervisor at Orchard Nursery in east Sussex, a "traditional family nursery". "I never went to college or university because there was never a course that had what I was looking for," she says.
"But when this came along it ticked what I wanted. There are some things such as marketing that the nursery wasn't doing so well. We can talk about what we've learned back here and put it into practice."
Being new, there has been the odd hitch, she says. "We had a plant identification that couldn't be done over the web for technical reasons so had to be done in lesson time. But Ken is very enthusiastic and has tailored it to our needs - the class is all very plant-based. It's something a lot of people would benefit from."
Another route into horticulture that continues to receive widespread Government backing is its apprenticeship programme. However, a recent report from Lantra found an "unacceptably low" take-up, particularly among small businesses.
Lantra director of policy, research and development Michael Smith says: "The Government says more than 200,000 adults will be able to start apprenticeships each year by 2015 and has earmarked £250m. But if it wants to hit its targets and attract adults it will have to make apprenticeships more flexible."
Crafer adds: "On production and retail horticulture, there are not many people coming through the scheme. The retail route is suitable for someone working in the shop, but less so for the planteria. Nor does it particularly suit production horticulture - although a lot of people are going through the amenity and groundsmanship schemes."
From the college's point of view, he adds: "It can be a challenge. The National Apprenticeship Service is supposed to broker the placement with the employer, but we have to talk to both parties to ensure that it's achievable.
"Apprentices are unlikely to have their own car so there's a limit to where they can get to for a seven o'clock start, so there's the potential to disappoint. As a college, we have a reputation to maintain."
A DEGREE OF UNCERTAINTY
The news that universities will be free to charge up to £9,000 a year in fees for degree courses from the 2012-13 academic year sounds like a further setback for higher-level horticultural training.
Already last year, the University of Reading suspended its BSc horticultural degree, alumni of which include garden designer Bunny Guinness, broadcaster and plant pathologist Pippa Greenwood and HW technical editor Sally Drury.
According to senior lecturer in environmental horticulture at the university Dr Ross Cameron: "Two processes have driven the move - a lack of school leavers coming onto the degree programme and the effects of the recession within the school itself, which has identified priorities and future directions."
But he adds: "It is unclear how smaller, more specialised degree programmes such as horticulture will fair following the Browne report (on university funding). Once students start paying a larger contribution to their fees, courses that have high employment opportunities may increase in popularity. Students from the Reading degree were traditionally always in high demand as employees."
This continues a trend from the past 20 years of horticultural courses being closed or restructured, largely due to poor recruitment. Degree courses at Bath, Strathclyde, Wye and Nottingham have all fallen by the wayside since the 1980s.
Capel Manor College chief executive Steve Dowbiggin says of this latest setback: "The timing is regrettable as it is an important time when horticulture has a significant role to play in rebuilding the country. We need to significantly improve food production in the UK and so need trained technologists to research and deliver this outcome."
Lantra sector entry and careers manager Chris Catchpole adds: "To ensure a skills deficit doesn't arise, academic institutions need to interact more with industry and an investigation needs to be undertaken into what the failings are in engaging young people and how to address them."
- Additional reporting by Katie Benallick.
A New Framework
The pace of change in education and training can seem unrelenting. The current academic year is the first to be guided by the new Qualifications & Credit Framework (QCF), which aims to standardise terminology and make qualifications easier to understand and compare.
Kingston Maurward College head of horticulture Ken Crafer says: "You can see how much work someone has done at each level because it records the depth and breadth of their skills." QCF qualifications are labelled award, certificate or diploma and run from level one up to eight.
"The material is very similar but the titles that employers use are changing," says Crafer. "In fact, different awarding bodies used to use the same titles for different levels of qualification. Now they are standardised, it will make it easier - in the longer term at least. It takes many years for these things to become well-known."
The college's own prospectus continues to use old and new terminology to avoid confusion, he adds. "The reality for most of our students is they study for a year like they always did. They are obtaining different modules and in theory they could stop at any point. But in our industry you have to see things through the season."
The focus of Government support for education remains the 16-18 age range, where funding is "abundant", Crafer adds. "They are encouraging young people to boost their training. But from 19 there is an expectation that students' contribution will be higher than it was. Colleges are starting to mirror what's happening in higher education."