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Julian Sturdy - Strong Voice for York Outer

Julian Sturdy

Member of Parliament for York Outer

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York Press Column: GCSE in Agriculture

February 22, 2018

I have recently been making the case for a GCSE in agriculture; such a qualification is already available to students in Northern Ireland so it seems rather bizarre that those in Great Britain do not have the same opportunity.

A new qualification of this kind offers significant skills and career opportunities to secondary-aged children, and could increase the pool of educated younger workers the ageing farming sector could draw on. One of the main functions of our education system is to equip young people with skills to make a contribution to the social and economic life of our country. Given pupils can currently study for GCSEs in business and psychology, surely they should also be able to learn about farming at the earliest possible opportunity, given how essential it is for putting food on everyone’s tables, and managing our landscapes and natural environment.

Agriculture is the essential foundation of the UK food and drink industry, our largest manufacturing sector, which contributes over £100 billion annually to the economy, and sustains more than 400,000 jobs. There is also the urgent global challenge of food security, with its huge implications for international development and economic growth in poorer nations. World population growth means we have to produce 70% more food over the next 30 years, and do so in a sustainable way that maximises finite resources. This challenge in some respects is as significant as climate change, and putting this on the school curriculum through an Agriculture GCSE could inspire young minds to help us produce a solution.

Even before secondary education, I would like to see pupils learning about where their food comes from. Through the ‘Grow Your Own Potatoes’ project I have visited schools in my constituency and witnessed first-hand the excitement created by planting, growing and harvesting. Statistics also show that children are far more likely to eat vegetables they have grown themselves.

Methods in farming are changing at a rapid pace with the increased use of robotics, biotechnology, gene-editing and data science. A school-leaver entering the farming sector in the next few years could expect to use GPS technologies to harvest wheat, driverless tractors, drones to deliver herbicide to weeds on a precision basis, grow wheat with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and new technologies that will drive up animal welfare. Our country is also home to some of the best agri-science research in the world, such as FERA Science near York.

Leaving the Common Agricultural Policy will give us an opportunity to prioritise maintaining the traditional appearance of Britain’s countryside. Therefore, the skills required for enhancing the environment and promoting countryside stewardship are needed more than ever.

The majority of farms are family businesses and the routes to getting involved if you are not from a farming background can be quite limited, to the detriment both of the sector, and school leavers, who are restricted in their ability to get a taste of an industry they might well be able to thrive in. Putting an Agriculture GCSE on the curriculum would widen opportunity and access for students by giving them the option to learn about a sector that relatively few of them will have knowledge of, or consider as a career choice.

A new Agriculture GCSE would also represent a sensible extension of the government’s plans to expand the provision of vocational and technical education, in order to create a better skilled workforce. The development of T-levels as a full technical alternative to A-levels is encouraging, but if we are truly to establish the parity of esteem necessary to seriously boost take-up of the vocational and technical route, this option needs to be offered to pupils at the first point they select the qualifications they will take, i.e. at GCSE level.

I held a parliamentary debate on this matter earlier this month and was delighted to receive support from colleagues, farming groups and many constituents. The government has been clear that it does not intend to introduce any new GCSE subjects, and I recognise the arguments as to why this is the case. However, we are not asking for a new qualification but rather the extension of an opportunity already offered in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK.