Monday, 3 November 2014

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields”…if there’s any left

Inspired by an issue raised by BBC’s Countryfile one Sunday evening, I share my own experiences of the stigma surrounding a land-based education and vocation…

There are many times when England has been described as a rural idyll; a green and pleasant land to be protected “whatever the cost may be”.

And at first glance this would look to be true.
The land based and environmental sector employs 1.3 million people in the UK. It produces our food, keeps our drinking water fresh, and manages our ‘green and pleasant land’, which includes conserving the wildlife, history and culture of our rural areas, and providing recreational opportunities for ourselves, and the tourists who flock to ‘quaint old England’ every year.

But there is a problem. 

The average age of a farmer in the UK is 59.  Land-based and vocational qualifications are at risk from being removed from school education after changes to which qualifications count toward league tables. The term ‘dissconected’ runs in front of the words ‘from nature’ in countless papers, with increasing frequency. 

Are we in danger of losing skills, knowledge, and labour force, from our fields and woodlands (and marshes, heaths, uplands, wetlands…) entirely?
In 50, 70, 100 years from now, will Hardy country and Kipling’s whale-backed downs, be lost beneath thorny scrub and the Darkling Thrush sing no more, as we shiver on the quay awaiting the food-ships from foreign lands?

Six years ago I sat in a classroom and listened in amazement as one of my kind and very proficient teachers, tried to persuade me away from my chosen further education route. The problem was, my secondary school, although it had served me well through my GCSE’s, had no provision for education in conservation and land management, the subject area of my aspirations, particularly following the closure of the school farm the year before my education had started at that establishment. I had therefore elected to attend my local, land-based further education college to study a vocational course, a Btec National Diploma in Countryside Management. This was not a popular idea.

A recent episode of BBC’s Countryfile (Sunday 2nd November 2014) raised the issue of the potential loss of land-based and vocational education in Britain’s schools, focusing on the potential closure of the few remaining school farms as vocational courses are dropped from education league tables in favour of academic GCSE’s. Some of the points highlighted both in the program and in the Twitter-aftermath, were uncomfortably reminiscent of the comments made by my teacher that day.

I was an A-Grade student in the majority of my main subjects including Sciences, Geography and English. 
In my teacher’s opinion this meant that I should stay at school for A-levels, and go to university, pursuing a purely academic, and what to me seemed a ‘mass-production’, route.
Apparently I was “too bright to do vocational qualifications”.
And that teacher wasn’t the only person to share that view.

Time and again I was asked the question ‘why?’ and people are still surprised when I say I haven’t been to University, when they automatically ask what subject I am reading or degree I have.
It took quite a determination and belief in my ambitions to stick to my decision.

Throughout my journey through my education I have encountered this same attitude from numerous, and often surprising sources. Students who were low achievers on the academic scale for various reasons, were taken from the classroom and dumped into vocational qualifications with the attitude ‘if you can’t handle exams or increase our pass rate and make the school/college look good, you might as well go and muck out pigs and chop down trees. Many of them thrived and developed, whilst many of the ‘smart’ students glared at them through the window, green with envy.

My local land based college received an unfortunate nick-name from students at my school and others in the area, in reference to it being ‘somewhere the stupid kids go’.
Meanwhile the students there, and the farmers, horticulturalists, arboriculturalists, vets and other qualified practitioners who had already passed through the college gates, work through mountains of paper work, calculate complex mathematical problems, and stretch their grasp of physics, biology and chemistry, on a daily basis.

However there are some enlightened education providers; just over 100 schools are clinging onto their school farms, whilst teachers, students and employers are standing by the need for and value of land-based qualifications within our education system. They can see how land-based education links to and provides opportunity to assist and extend students’ learning in every key subject area: maths, literacy, sciences, as well as providing life skills, confidence and a taste of workplace skills, all of which are vital to both the future employability and further education success of young people.

Meanwhile, the majority of children and young people are increasingly loosing connection with the food they eat and the ground they walk on.

I don’t blame my teachers for wanting to keep top-grade students at their school, but a young person’s future and ambitions should come before positions on league tables. I have always believed that whatever career you choose, from road sweeping to politics, it should provide job satisfaction and quality of life. It should make you happy.

We need to erase the stigma and make land-based and vocational style qualifications open to all. Farming, horticulture and the other connected industries are not exclusively simple, manual, low-skilled workplaces but a ‘respectable’ valid aspirational career choice for anyone, with huge potential to develop and progress, and to contribute to your country. And land-based education isn’t just for school and college. You can take it as far as you want – practical or theoretical, academic or vocational, from tiny-tots to PhD and doctorates. You might save an endangered species, solve world hunger or even bring a smile to the face of the people who walk through the city-park as you mow the grass.

Personally, I now have two vocational qualifications, along with a number of additional units and training courses, coupled in an employer-attracting package, with copious volunteering and workplace experience.
And I count myself lucky in knowing what I want to do with it.

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