Seriously: why NOT offer an A-Level GCSE in Agriculture?

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Calls for an Agriculture GCSE are all well and good, but the system isn’t set up for such change, says BERNARD TRAFFORD

TELEVISION’S ‘FACE OF THE COUNTRYSIDE’, the jovial Countryfile farmer/presenter Adam Henson, made headlines recently when he called for the introduction of a GCSE in Agriculture.
The Sunday Times devoted a leader to his suggestion – but chose to poke fun at it. Of four joke GCSE questions, the first was “What is slurry? (a) Liquid manure? (b) Anyone after five pints of cider?”
I don’t mind a laugh: we educators frequently become over-serious and forget to engage a sense of humour. Still, on reflection I reckon Adam’s suggestion deserved fuller consideration than the paper accorded it.
As you’d expect, there are qualifications in agriculture. Northern Ireland actually already has a GCSE in the subject. England doesn’t: but an online search swiftly located Pearson’s new BTEC in agriculture, ready to start teaching in 2018. Yes, BTEC! All these years on, BTEC, the Business and Technology Education Council secondary school vocational qualification equivalent to an A-Level, has been the great survivor, even while we take axes to (and build bonfires of) myriad other qualifications.
The Independent Schools Council (ISC, which produces a useful daily news digest of education by no means restricted to private schools) took the suggestion seriously and called for a debate: should children learn more about valuing where their food, water and fuel come from?
Teachers of biology, geography and PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) will claim they’re already learning a great deal. They are: perhaps the ISC should have asked, instead, whether children should be more aware of elements of health, nutrition and the causes of obesity, for a start? Not when they’re in the classroom, but when they’re spending their money at the corner-shop on the way to school.
More-aware children might also seek a deeper understanding of food production and be better equipped to make ethical decisions about the foods they choose to eat (I’m a carnivore, so this isn’t a piece of hidden proselytising for vegetarianism).
They might wonder, as I do, why this country is so complacent about the fact that it’s so far from becoming food self-sufficient. It seems irresponsible to me that we make so little effort to ensure that we can feed and clothe ourselves – even if we choose to export much of what we produce and, to add variety and boost trade, import a balancing quantity.
Finally, there is the threat that, post-Brexit, we shall be short of farmers. I don’t suggest that a farming GCSE would encourage hordes of 16-year-olds to go to work in the fields. Nonetheless, when we no longer admit labourers from Europe, who will pick the crops, vegetables and fruits that we do grow?
We’re still falling woefully short in terms of producing a technically advanced workforce, and are failing properly to value the apprenticeship route into skilled work: but let’s not overlook the need also to train the people who will feed us. They too will work in an industry becoming more scientifically and technically complex all the time (have you watched harvesting done by GPS-guided machinery? It’s an awesome sight).
A GCSE in Agriculture could be a great addition to the choices available. But this is a purely academic discussion (no pun intended): this government won’t permit farming to enter the GCSE canon. Even if it did, few pupils would choose the subject because of the pressure on schools to focus tightly on the EBacc (English Baccalaureate) subjects that policymakers regard as exclusively worthwhile and valuable.
In a letter to The Times (11 September) about the narrowing of subjects in Year 9, the National Association of Head Teachers’ deputy general secretary, Nick Brook, could equally have been talking about Adam Henson’s proposal when he wrote:
“We want to see a change in the system where a broad and balanced curriculum, as well as a broad range of skills and knowledge, are valued by government in the same way that they are valued by students, parents and employers.”
Amen to that: but the change won’t come quickly.
Pupils choosing GCSEs and hoping to see Agriculture on the menu are in for a long wait.

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