Why we need an agriculture GCSE

Clive Aslet
Adam Henson, Countryfile presenter, has called for a GCSE in agriculture - Andrew Crowley

Actually using what you learnt at GCSE upon reaching adulthood isn’t something many of us can lay claim to. Which is why the suggestion this week from Countryfile presenter Adam Henson and Country Life editor Mark Hedges that agriculture become a part of the British schools’ curriculum has caught the imagination of so many. “You can get a GCSE in religious studies and business, so why not in agriculture?”

Henson, a rare breeds and arable farmer, said, adding that he wanted “to do for farms what Rick Stein has done for fish.” It is such a sensible suggestion that one’s left asking why there isn’t an agriculture GCSE (outside of Northern Ireland) already.

The industry may not be a huge employer – less than two per cent of the workforce is directly engaged in it – but the food sector as a whole is big business, and as good a use of teenagers’ time as reading from a textbook. According to a report by Cambridge University in 2010, ‘The food and drink industry is a core element of the UK manufacturing economy, representing over 15 per cent of manufacturing turnover and employment.’

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Food and drink manufacturing are worth more than £10bn to the economy, and the cost of groceries is a hot topic: never have people been more concerned about the price of food. Then there’s ornamental horticulture smelling as sweet as ever; a fillip has been given to this £1bn industry by the fall in the pound (most cut flowers are imported).

Farmers are a forward thinking lot - they’ve had to be, given the changes in regulation that have been thrown at them over the decades

Paper qualifications aren’t always appropriate to practical subjects, and in the old days, many farmers chose this lifestyle precisely because it was non-academic, offering a life spent in the open air. Paperwork is their bugbear. But an agriculture GCSE would at least help redress the industry’s image problem. With the average age of the British farmer knocking on 60, children don’t necessarily see this as a glamorous career option.

Once, rural youngsters would have made some extra money by seasonal work, such as picking soft fruit and salads in summertime and plucking turkeys before Christmas, but no longer. The news this summer that one in eight young 18-24-year-olds has never seen a cow in real life, and 42 per cent of that group describes their knowledge of the countryside as either “poor” or “very poor”, highlights the growing distance between young people and the land they live on.

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“It will not only teach children to value the place their food, water and fuel comes from but they might even find it inspiring” Hedges said of the proposed qualification, which is currently on exam boards in Northern Ireland, but not the rest of the UK. “There’s huge scope for their future employment in an industry that is about way more than milking cows and shearing sheep.”

Indeed as farming folk know, the reality of agriculture is often different from the perception. This is a dynamic industry where the speed of innovation can be dizzying, and the challenge of feeding a hungry world, if taught properly, ought to be a thrilling subject for school children.

Farmers are being tasked with a host of seemingly incompatible goals – carbon capture, soil improvement, flood reduction measures, more wildlife habitat, the production of energy, whether solar or biomass…oh, and growing better and greater volumes of food. How are all these circles to be squared – by organic methods or biotechnology?  Discuss.

As yet, nobody can say precisely what the future of agriculture will hold after Brexit. Farmers are a forward thinking lot -- they’ve had to be, given the changes in regulation that have been thrown at them over the decades – but they’ll need new ideas. Will they come from youngsters whose imaginations have been fired by the GCSE?  Britain is already at the cutting edge of agri-science, and one advantage of Brexit is that we’ll no longer be constrained by the luddite prejudice of the EU against GM crops. They have the potential to eliminate blight, establish drought-resistance and enable high-value crops to be grown in the colder Northerly counties. Aren’t these developments to excite any 16-year-old? 

At the other end of the spectrum is the boom in traditional foods, beloved of Prince Charles. A generation ago, Britain was mocked for its watery cuisine. Now many of the speciality products on the shelves of ultra-foodie delicatessens all over the world come from the UK. I never visit Suffolk without buying a goodly quantity of raw milk Baron Bigod brie (not that they can call it that; it’s a Brie-de-Meaux style cheese), made by a young farmer who persuaded his father to trade in the black-and-white dairy herd for a Montbeliarde cow. Agricultural shows are now replete with new food offerings, from Norfolk Saffron to oysters from Northern Ireland - the time to get into agriculture has never been more exciting.

I hope the qualification, if it gets onto the curriculum, will offer tasting sessions. And an introduction to the wildflowers and bugs, birds and mammals that must flourish alongside farming. Young people know too little about natural world, of which farming forms a large part of the backdrop - perhaps an agriculture qualification could change that.

Clive Aslet is a former editor of Country Life