Skip to main content

Agriculture GCSE

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the introduction of an agriculture GCSE.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes, I think for the first time. As Members may recall from previous debates, my professional background is in agriculture; I draw Members’ attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. My background and experience have naturally made me a passionate advocate for UK farming. British agriculture is the essential foundation of the UK food and drink industry, which as our largest single manufacturing sector employs one in eight people and contributes more than £100 billion to the economy each year, including through a growing volume of exports. Farming also plays a vital role in protecting our environment, maintaining and conserving the land, soil and landscapes that make up our precious natural heritage.

So why a GCSE in agriculture? One of the foremost functions of our education system is to equip young people with the necessary skills to contribute to the social and economic life of our country. I firmly believe that, given the significance of agriculture to our economy, environment and society, the education system should ensure that the younger generation are able to flourish in the sector, and should give them the option of doing so at the earliest possible opportunity by offering an agricultural GCSE in schools across England and Wales.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. Bearing in mind that the average age of farmers in the UK is approaching 60, does he agree that a new lease of life is needed and that the GCSE will give those who are perhaps not from a farming background but who have a love of the land the opportunity to gain an understanding and to get involved in farming? We in Northern Ireland have done that so far.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have not quite reached the farmer’s average age yet, which is around 59 at the moment. I was going on to mention that Northern Ireland already has a GCSE in agriculture, which started in 2013.

I really hope the Minister will answer this when she responds later: why is it good enough for GCSEs to be provided to young people in Northern Ireland, but not in North Herefordshire?

It is up to the Minister to respond to that, and I hope she does, but I do not want to see a GCSE in agriculture only in North Herefordshire. I want to see it in England and Wales and perhaps Scotland as well.

We do not have a national 5 in agriculture in Scotland, so it would be a positive move to introduce it there and to get further behind apprenticeships as well, so that students have room to develop from national 5 into an apprenticeship when they leave school.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a valuable point.

My support for the agriculture GCSE is based on two central arguments: first, the course would offer great benefits to GCSE pupils in helping to equip them for a skilled and fulfilling career that agriculture can offer; and secondly, it would support the farming sector by providing a better and larger pool of young, educated and skilled workers. I have already mentioned Northern Ireland. It is important to re-emphasise that Northern Ireland has had a GCSE in agriculture since 2013. I could not get the figures, but I would be interested to know what the take-up has been in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend will find that 17 schools already offer the GCSE in Northern Ireland, with an average of 10 students per class. Agriculture, horticulture and animal care is the fastest growing degree subject, with an increase in applications of 117%, so clearly the demand is there.

I am glad my hon. Friend has brought those figures to this debate. I can always rely on him to bring facts to the table. It is also worth mentioning that there is an opportunity for those who are privileged enough to have the advantage of taking an IGCSE qualification in agriculture offered by Cambridge Assessment, but it is clear that opportunities are limited to a small cohort of students in the UK, so I do not think that that really qualifies. We have to make sure that it is offered right across the board.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he envisage the GCSE being provided in secondary schools or will he broaden his remit to encourage organisations such as the Duchy College in my constituency to provide the GCSE, so that the college can broaden its remit?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is important to ensure that all education facilities have the opportunity to offer a GCSE in agriculture. It should be available to all—that is the premise of the argument—and not a limited few.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous. I actually taught rural studies, although I look too young. Does he accept that the wider rural economy is crucial to the relationship between agriculture and the rural hinterland?

Again, I entirely agree. I will go on to mention that this is not just about agriculture. The wider rural economy, the environment and food security link back to agriculture and food production.

I understand that the Department for Education has recently introduced changes to secondary qualifications and wants a time to allow those to settle down, but a model exists for how to design and teach the subject at GCSE level, which suggests it would be straightforward for the Government to make it available. Has there been any consideration of replicating the content of the GCSE syllabus available to those in Northern Ireland for students in Britain?

I have been sympathetic to an expansion in GCSE options for some time, but I was encouraged to argue for this more publicly by the intervention of the BBC “Countryfile” presenter, Adam Henson, who publicly called for the introduction of an agriculture GCSE in September last year. He said:

“You can get a GCSE in religious studies and business, so why not in agriculture?”

That is a fair question. A GCSE in agriculture has a strong claim to feature among current non-core science and mathematics options, which currently include geology, astronomy and psychology. Expanding the offer to include the option of a GCSE in agriculture would be a sensible and logical development of the Government’s welcome plans to expand the provision of vocational and technical education in order to create a better skilled and more productive workforce, enjoying higher wages and better living standards. That is recognised in the Government’s industrial strategy, which made the claim of

“putting the UK at the forefront of this global revolution in farming.”

I am old enough to remember when there was an O-grade, or an O-level, in agricultural science in Scotland—I am substantially older than my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair), who is far too young to remember it. An agriculture GCSE has to be about food production and what the countryside is really about, as opposed to the countryside as a national park. The best thing that could come out of it would be that people connect again with food production and the countryside.

I entirely agree that it is about connecting with food production, and ensuring that we understand where our food comes from, how it works in the chain, the environmental impacts, and how we manage production. I cannot say that I am old enough to remember the O-level; my year was the last to take O-levels, but I cannot remember having the opportunity to take that one. The point is that we have to ensure that we move forward, and the GCSE would be one way of doing that.

I am watching with interest the development of plans for T-levels, as a full technical alternative to A-levels, but if there is truly to be the parity of esteem necessary to boost the take-up of vocational and technical skills, the option of a vocational or sector-linked qualification needs to be offered to pupils as soon as possible, at the time they first select the qualifications that they will take—that is, at GCSE level. Have the Government considered the effects of boosting the number of students taking the agriculture, environment and animal care route from 2022 by introducing a dedicated pre-16 qualification?

In Parliament, we are all familiar with employers saying that schools do not do enough to prepare our young people for the world of work. Offering an agriculture GCSE would go some way to respond to those concerns, by allowing pupils to equip themselves for work at an early age. GCSE-age children could learn about a practical and essential subject, directly linked to a varied and dynamic field of employment.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he has been very gracious. As we move towards leaving the EU on 31 March next year, the opportunities for agri-food business to increase across the whole world are magnificent and large. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that now may be the time to focus on them? There are opportunities in farming here, and in exports overseas.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman; he makes the point very well. As we move forward with Brexit, now is the time to push the boundaries and take agriculture to new levels. To do that, however, we will need the skills base for the future, and we have to enthuse young people. A GCSE in agriculture gives us a real opportunity to do that.

Sadly, there is plenty of evidence that young people do not consider agriculture as a potential career path at the moment, which is unfortunate considering its vital role in the UK economy, and in addressing the huge global challenges of world hunger, food security and environmental conservation. Only 4% of UK workers would ever consider farm work or going into agriculture. Statistics show that about 20,000 students opt to study agriculture at university each year. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) said, that is a growing number, which is very encouraging. However, some 280,000 school leavers sign up for business-related degrees. Introducing agriculture as an option early on, at GCSE level, would give young people a chance to understand the huge opportunities that the sector offers them, and would do something to correct the imbalance.

The comparison with business studies in those statistics, along with Adam Henson’s comments that I quoted earlier, are important because it is essential that we remember that farming is a business, and therefore offers exactly the same opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation as urban enterprises, as well as addressing huge environmental and humanitarian concerns. Moreover, it is a business sector that will be at the forefront of unfolding technological developments and exciting scientific advancements. A GCSE option would be a useful way of alerting school pupils and school leavers to those opportunities.

Agriculture is being, and will be, transformed by the fourth industrial revolution, and it is important to alert pupils and parents to the option of pursuing a career in a high-tech, high-skill industry, utilising the latest scientific innovations. School leavers entering the farming sector in the next few years could expect to use GPS technology to harvest wheat, to use driverless tractors, to use drones to deliver herbicides to weeds on a precision basis, to grow wheat with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and to use other new technologies that will drive up animal welfare, such as robotic milking parlours. The industry needs entrants with sound scientific understanding and applied skills.

In the next few decades, robotics, biotechnology, gene editing and data science will become increasingly established in the farming sector. Our country is home to some of the best agri-science research in the world, such as at Rothamstead Research in Herefordshire—

Sorry, Hertfordshire—once again, I thank my hon. Friend for giving the correct details. Other examples include Fera Science, just outside my constituency in North Yorkshire, and Stockbridge Technology Centre in North Yorkshire. We should be trying to fire the imaginations of our young people by engaging them in the classroom with such examples as soon as possible, just as we try to inspire pupils with the achievements of British scientists and astronauts and the richness of British cultural and literary achievements in their science and English GCSE courses. The development of indoor vertical farming using hydroponics will also expand the opportunities for growing food in urban areas, which could make agricultural knowledge just as relevant to pupils in urban areas as in rural ones.

An agriculture GCSE would also encourage school- children to grapple in a practical manner with the huge practical, humanitarian and environmental challenge of global food security. The growth of the global population means that, as a world, we have to produce 70% more food over the next 30 years to keep pace with demand, and to ensure that people do not go hungry. Moreover, we have to do so in an environmentally sustainable way that makes the best use of our finite resources.

The challenge is as significant in its own way as that of climate change, and I argue that, like climate change, it should be included in school curricula. Putting an agriculture GCSE on the curriculum would also widen opportunities for students, by giving them the option to learn about a sector that relatively few of them will have knowledge of, or have considered as a career choice. The majority of farms are family businesses, mine being no exception, and the routes to getting involved if someone is not directly from a farming background can, sadly, be quite limited. That is to the detriment of both the sector and school leavers, who are restricted in their ability to get a taste of a sector in which they could well thrive.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, I was pleased to host the UK and Ireland delegates to the global agricultural summit here in Parliament last November. All the current entrants were university students. I was hugely impressed by their knowledge, their enthusiasm for the latest advances in agriculture and their desire to contribute solutions. However, what was most telling was that not a single one of them had a family background in farming. They had all been drawn to the sector by developing their own independent interest and research into agricultural questions. That certainly emphasised to me the capacity of agriculture to challenge and inspire young people, but I would also highlight that it is relatively rare for children to become independently interested in it, which reinforces the value of having the option at school so that they can make informed choices on the basis of a comprehensive array of available options.

As well as being of benefit to younger people, having an expanded pool of educated and enthusiastic young people would also be very useful for the sector and the wider UK food and drink industry. As has already been mentioned, the age of the farming workforce is ever increasing. Farming is challenging and changing. In the race to keep up with the pace, we need a high-skilled workforce entering the industry with applied capabilities and an awareness of the breadth of available opportunities. I commend the Government for pushing ahead with a substantial reform to post-16 education, but its effectiveness could be limited if measures are not introduced to expand the opportunities in secondary education to include a GCSE in agriculture.

I ask the Minister to look closely at this issue going forward. There is a great opportunity for our economy, as well as an opportunity to give young people the skills in what is, to me, an incredibly vibrant and exciting sector.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing this debate. He spoke passionately and emphasised the need for people—not just young people—to know about careers in all aspects of farming. He also mentioned agri-tech. In my role as Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, I have met a number of people in that sector about the opportunities. My hon. Friend and I have spoken at length before about grazing horses. This is a new subject for us to discuss, and I heard everything he had to say.

I am mindful that with apprenticeships and T-levels there is a tendency for the focus to be urban-based and for rural areas to be forgotten. I assure my hon. Friend, as well as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) —who has now left—my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for Angus (Kirstene Hair) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), and the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), that I will not forget that, because it is important.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer raised the issue of food production across the world and the international aspects of farming, which is equally important. It is also important that the sector gets the workforce it needs. He will be aware that a number of subjects taught at key stage 4 and earlier include some core knowledge about food production and the environment. Those have been recognised in the changes that have come about to GCSEs. There have also been a number of changes to GCSEs that make the content more rigorous. Whatever someone does after 16, it is critical to have a good foundation in maths, English and digital skills. My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of understanding that farming is a business. Business skills are important, and such skills are predicated on a solid grounding.

In geography, for instance, pupils are expected to learn about changing weather, climate change, global ecosystems, biodiversity and resources, including an overview of how humans use, modify and change those ecosystems and environments in order to obtain food, energy and water. In the nutrition GCSE, pupils are required to understand the economic, environmental and socio-cultural influences on food availability. That is quite important. There is also content in some of the science GCSEs. I suspect that that will not be enough to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, or indeed my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire, who spoke with his usual passion, but material in the core reformed subjects provides a general background, which forms an important grounding in some of the knowledge needed to go on and run a business.

Schools can also do outdoor learning and there is a certain amount of freedom, which many schools use. I gather that there are more than 100 schools with farms in the UK, a fact I was not aware of. They bring pupils from both rural and urban areas to understand a little bit more about farming. Also, there is a City & Guilds technical certificate in agriculture for 16 to 18-year-olds, so some opportunities do exist. In addition, apprenticeships and T-levels—technical education that will be on a par with A-levels—will change the world. To some extent, it is in the hands of hon. Members to go out into their schools to highlight the opportunities that exist.

The first teaching of T-levels will start in September 2020, with the remainder launched in two phases in 2021 and 2022. The agriculture, environment and animal care route will be rolled out in the second phase, which gives it a degree of importance not afforded to all. The content of the T-levels will be decided by employers, professionals and practitioners, which will mean they have real market relevance and real currency within the sector. We are currently consulting on T-levels and I am sure the farming sector and the broader agri-tech sector will have input.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer is right that early introduction to the issues is important. I launched our careers strategy in December last year. The strategy recognises that young people’s interaction with work is absolutely critical—not just doing work placements, but employers coming into schools. There are now duties on schools to bring people in and there are clear benchmarks about what they have to achieve in terms of introducing young people to the wide range of careers and the routes to getting there. Entrepreneurial, talented new entrants are needed to encourage the next generation of farmers.

There has been wide-scale reform of apprenticeships. There will be some farmers who pay levies, but there are opportunities even for small and medium-sized enterprises. Apprenticeship standards for land-based service engineer and land-based service engineer technician are already live and a number of standards are in development, including crop technician, farrier, poultry technician and stockperson. The Institute for Apprenticeships is working with employers to ensure that quality standards are high. I recently met some students in a school for young people with special needs. I was very impressed with the work that they are doing to encourage those children, who are going on to do level 2 apprenticeships in agriculture, farming and animal care. It is very impressive.

We want to make sure that the sector has the right skills, but what is absolutely critical is overcoming a not insignificant degree of parental and teacher prejudice about the options that are open for young people. It has been a pleasure to have this debate. I am sorry I did not have longer, but I assure my hon. Friend that I am on the case. It is very important that the tendency with these changes for an urban focus is spread out into rural communities. National Apprenticeship Week is coming up. He will have the opportunity—

It is critical that we have an academic qualification for people in urban areas in this subject, rather than making them do apprenticeships that they cannot reach because they live in the towns.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because it is also about attracting people back into the countryside. One of the issues for rural communities is that people leave and go elsewhere. There are high-level qualifications too—it is not just about levels 2 and 3; it is about levels 4 and 5. The degree opportunities were mentioned, and degree apprenticeships are really taking off. There is not much not to like—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).