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Ag student numbers on the rise - but more needs to be done to break stereotypes

Youngsters believe the rise of YouTube and conversation from the farmgate should be used to publicise career opportunities in the industry, while Leaf Education thinks incorporation in school subjects is the answer.

Credit: LEAF Education
Credit: LEAF Education

The number of agricultural students is on the up, but more needs to be done to break the stereotype of the traditional route into food and farming.


Figures from a recent study by the Knowledge Academy suggest agriculture and related subjects was up 5.4 per cent in the last decade, from 17,680 students in 2007/8 to 18,630 last year – with students in veterinary science also up 50 per cent. The statistics make for a refreshing change, as many UK industries compete to recruit for their sector.


But there is more to food, farming and the countryside than an agricultural degree, mud and wellies, says Leaf director of education and public engagement Carl Edwards.




And getting the conversation into school subjects earlier is a good place to start, says the former assistant head teacher.


Over the last 12 months, Leaf Education has pulled together an educational consultation, looking at specifications in GCSEs and A-levels on how lessons and key messages can be taught through the farm. A good example is business studies, he says.


“It is about signposting,” says Mr Edwards. “So our aim is working to inspire the next generation about food, farming and the countryside.


“Our argument is food and farming must be delivered in the classroom.”


The scheme, a culmination of Farming and Countryside Education and Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf), is working alongside the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs on a future farmer programme, with the help of funding from Defra.


It is linked with subjects such as personal, social, health and economic education and food technology to encourage young people to better understand how British food and farming can support other issues.


“Part of the project is all about careers,” he says. “We ask the students to go and buy a meal deal and then we have about 50 different job cards around research and food and we get the students to link those job cards to the meal they have just bought.




“One of the best comments was from a student who said they did not realise about 40 jobs went into making a cheese sandwich. It is about opening their eyes to look at those different career options.”


Another tactic Leaf Education uses is to ask students what skills they have and to match them to the job cards. Not only does it help determine which job their skills are suited to, it also opens their thinking to the type of career which is available in food and farming.


It should boost knowledge of available courses at land-based colleges or apprenticeships.


“We need that delivery of the sector and conversation with young people to offer those experiences.”


Research by Leaf Education in 1,200, 12 to 18-year-olds, found 35 per cent are interested in food, farming and the countryside, with 32 per cent considering a career in the sector. But only 22 per cent say they have been taught the relevant information.


The most frequent words which pop up among youngsters are long hours and hard work, Mr Edwards says, ‘but when we delved a little deeper into that, we found what they meant was it would be difficult, but worth it.’


It also helps focus on career opportunities, he says, with Leaf Education bringing in ideas such as caring for soils and becoming an agronomist, as well as working with animals and jobs in the food sector. Youngsters like the idea of caring for soils as they do not understand other, more complicated terminology.


They want to see how they can empower teenagers to be better involved in the industry and the work they do.


“They saw the science and technology link and said if they could understand how we care for things, for example soils and crops, as well as animals, it would help,” says Mr Edwards.


“They told us we needed a YouTube channel. They said there were not a lot of people their age who inspire them in food and farming.




“They want to see the reality of the job and see someone who has gone from having no experience in farming and watch them develop their knowledge.


“They say to us ‘if you want to sell careers to us, you have to get us on to farms and let us speak to professionals’.


“The question is do we need to change how we talk about careers in the industry to better engage with youngsters?”


Leaf Education has worked with 353 trainee teachers on how to incorporate the farm as part of the lessons, helping highlight career opportunities in ag.


A national campaign by the initiative is working with smaller groups of secondary school students, all of high ability, to break away from the taboo that food and farming is only for those who are unable to do anything else.


A partnership with North Wales landbased college Coleg Cambria Llysfasi, Vale of Clwyd, awarded 14 girls and one boy a weekend on a commercial dairy farm at the college campus for a weekend, who then had to argue for or against a hypothesis that farming was ‘so much more than mud and wellies’.


Mr Edwards says: “Most of the students had little experience with food and farming, but at least three of them have since applied to a land-based college.


“This means Leaf Education has had a 20 per cent impact on them through that opportunity. We have got to provide these opportunities on a smaller scale for it to have an impact.”


Starting the conversations early in the right environment using meaningful experiences could be the key to raising awareness of careers in agriculture.

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National Careers Week

A new video, which launches as part of National Careers Week, shows agriculture at the cutting edge of modern technology and at the forefront of innovations in key areas, such as IT, science, engineering, automation and design.


The video is part of the #ThisIsAgriculture campaign, which is being led by Farmers Guardian and 21 key industry organisations to promote the diversity of career opportunities in the sector.



FG editor Ben Briggs says: “With an economic contribution of more than £46 billion to the UK market alone, there is so much more to careers in agriculture than people realise.


“It is a hugely technical and sophisticated sector, fuelled by global research and intelligence yet massively misunderstood by the mainstream public.


“We would like to invite those working in the agricultural industry to show their support by sharing the video link so we can raise awareness of the innovative and exciting careers our industry has to offer.”



Farmers Guardian has joined forces with 21 key industry stakeholders from across the farming sector to launch a new campaign, #ThisIsAgriculture, to promote careers in agriculture.


The challenge of recruiting is not a new one. Attracting new blood into the industry has always been an issue, with agriculture rarely sold as an exciting option into schools.


However, with the pace of technological change rapidly widening the skills gap and Brexit looming, the need to drive change within the industry has intensified greatly over recent years.


Building on the learning from the #ThisIsAgriculture survey, this initiative will work to educate the wider world about the wealth of opportunities available within the sector, as well as dispelling common myths about careers in agriculture.


We will also be collaborating with industry bodies and our industry partners to see where we can work together to shape the political agenda, drive educational reform and provide learning resources.


The campaign will also be sharing information with readers about how to attract – and retain – the right staff for farming businesses across the UK.

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