An MP has called for the introduction of a GCSE in agriculture to encourage more youngsters into the industry.

The plea was made by Conservative York Outer MP Julian Sturdy during a Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday (7 February).

A GCSE in agriculture should be introduced in schools across England and Wales – as it was already in Northern Ireland, he said.

“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,” Mr Sturdy told MPs.

Farm workforce

Introducing a GSCE in agriculture would help ensure a skilled farm workforce as the UK left the EU, he added.

“The education system should ensure the younger generation are able to flourish in the sector – and should give them the option of doing so at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Mr Sturdy, who is also chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture, said his support for a GCSE was 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, he said.

Second, it would support the farming sector by providing a better and larger pool of young, educated and skilled workers.

North Herefordshire Conservative MP Bill Wiggin said 17 schools already offered the GCSE in Northern Ireland, with an average of 10 students per class.

Popular subject

Agriculture, horticulture and animal care was the fastest growing degree subject, with an increase in applications of 117%, he said.

“Clearly the demand is there,” said Mr Wiggin.

Mr Sturdy said all educational facilities should 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.”

Mr Sturdy said he was watching with interest the development of plans for T-levels, as a full technical alternative to A-levels.

But he said a relevant farming qualification should be offered earlier to school pupils.

“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.”

‘On the case’

Responding on behalf of the government, apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton said she was “on the case” but many subjects already touched on aspects of agriculture.

Ms Milton said: “A number of subjects taught at key stage 4 and earlier include some core knowledge about food production and the environment.”

Geography, for instance, included lessons about changing weather, climate change, global eco-systems, biodiversity and resources.

It also includs an overview of how humans use, modify and change those eco-systems and environments in order to obtain food, energy and water.

Schools can also do outdoor learning, said Ms Milton.

School farms

There are more than 100 schools with farms in the UK bringing together pupils from both rural and urban areas to understand a little bit more about farming.

There is also a City & Guilds technical certificate in agriculture for 16 to 18-year-olds.

The first teaching of T-levels will start in September 2020, with the remainder launched in two phases in 2021 and 2022, said Ms Milton.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Farmers divided over merits of agriculture GCSE

Opinion is divided over calls by MP Julian Sturdy for the introduction of a GSCE in agriculture for schools across England and Wales.

Organic sheep farmer Nick Mullins said it was a step in the right direction.

Natural England head of agriculture and farmer Geoff Sansome said it would really be the “re-introduction” of a qualification in agriculture for under-16s.

“I have an O-level in agriculture from 1977,” he said.

East Yorkshire farmer Jono Dixon said he thought agriculture would be better received by school pupils than subjects such as Latin.

But AHDB cereals chairman and Yorkshire farmer Paul Temple asked who would teach the new qualification – suggesting it was madness.

It would be better to concentrate on science and geography taught well rather than agriculture taught badly, said Mr Temple.

“I am and I was a school governor,” he said. “I’d put numerous manual skills ahead of the need to teach agriculture. We don’t do food very well either.”