BY BEN EAGLE
The call for an agriculture GCSE has entered public discussion once again as Conservative MP for York Outer, Julian Sturdy, called for the introduction of a GCSE in agriculture for schools in England and Wales. He hopes that this would encourage more young people to enter the agricultural sector as well as improve their awareness of food, farming and environmental issues. The qualification was called for last autumn by farmer and Countryfile presenter Adam Henson and Country Life editor Mark Hedges but discussions seemed to peter out. It already exists in Northern Ireland, with 17 schools offering the qualification to around 170 students. The argument goes that by profiling agriculture in this way many more students would foster an interest in exploring the agri industry in some way and the number of new entrants will increase. But, is a GCSE really necessary and would it help the sector and, importantly, young people themselves? I would argue yes, but not everybody agrees.
Feedback from some in the industry has not been overly positive with the thinking being that we should be concentrating on teaching science and geography well, rather than agriculture badly. However, surely this depends on the quality of the teaching and the way that teaching is implemented? Many seem to support the calls for an agriculture GCSE (at least of those polled to date). In a recent poll on Farmers Weekly 93% of respondents (717 votes) said yes to the question ‘should GCSE agriculture be offered to teenagers to prepare them for a career in food and farming?’ I tend to agree. It wouldn’t solve all our problems and it certainly isn’t a silver bullet. It would need to have a practical element and be cost effective, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction. We need all the tools we can in improving the image of agriculture and in getting the message out to young people that food and farming is an exciting career which has good prospects.
There doesn’t seem to be a problem with attracting entrants at degree level – agriculture, horticulture and animal care was the fastest growing degree subject last year, with an increase in applications of 117%. However, we need entrants at all levels and perhaps a GCSE would add that little extra encouragement. There is already a BTEC offered to students interested in agriculture, but this alone cannot be enough. A GCSE might attract students who don’t have much of a background in farming at all but it could kindle an interest that could lead on to bigger things. Paper qualifications aren’t everything, but school is where most of us learn skills and information that will influence our future career paths. Teachers of geography, biology and perhaps even PSHE might argue that their subject touches on food and farming sufficiently, but it’s arguably not enough to encourage a young person to focus on agriculture in future life, unless they have an influence from elsewhere.
Agriculture is changing at an extraordinary rate, with the future set to be shaped by technology above anything else, and the industry needs to reach out to prospective young technologists. Before this can happen, young people need to be aware of the technological opportunities in the agricultural sector. For many, if they think about it at all, the old image of farming being about mud, muck and brute strength probably continues. However, this simply isn’t the case anymore. Farming is a broad industry that releases opportunities for a wide range of people with a wide range of skills. Indeed, no matter your interest there is probably a place for you somewhere in agriculture or the ancillary industries.
If the qualification did take hold I would hope that it would involve field trips and work with farmers doing fantastic projects such as the #Facetimeafarmer campaign spearheaded by Cambridgeshire arable farmer Tom Martin. It should be up to the industry itself to support teachers (perhaps with support themselves for doing so via Defra – whether that is financial or otherwise). It could be argued that it wouldn’t be the cheapest course in the world to run, but if it helps to attract the farmers, agricultural technologists, agronomists and agricultural journalists of the future, surely this is an investment worth making?
Farming is facing a number of big questions at the moment, and we will need as much help and support in tackling these questions as possible over the coming years. There is no reason why young people cannot be introduced to these questions in the classroom, and a GCSE in agriculture would be a great place to introduce them and encourage young people to go further down the line in tackling them. For example, how do we reconcile increasing pressure to produce more food, a rising population and yet a decline in biodiversity? How can we use land to hold water and reduce flooding downstream? How can we use soils as a carbon sink? Should the future be driven by organic principles, biotechnology or both? It’s an incredibly exciting time to be in the industry and these are just some of the questions that could hopefully inspire new entrants.
School should be about equipping children for future life, and raising the issues and concerns that they might wish to tackle. For me, the pressure on the health service and loss of biodiversity, two major issues of our times, are inherently linked to food production. Biology, geography and other subjects can of course involve questions about food production, but I don’t think they can go into sufficient depth to encourage students to take agriculture seriously as a career path. As an industry farming has a problem with attracting diversity. Not enough is done about tackling it, and most of it, in my opinion, is about the continued image problem. We need to get the message out that you don’t need to be from a farming background to enter farming. All are welcome, but it’s about instilling confidence, and a GCSE might just be that push that someone needs. I know that it would have helped instil confidence in me, and it would be brilliant to give that opportunity to others.