A pioneering work-based learning programme has allowed countryside ranger Adam Curtis to get a tailor-made degree, reports Justina Hart
"MY MUM told me that if I dropped out of college and went to Merrist Wood, I'd end up being a salesman for Quaker Oats," quips Adam Curtis.
Quaker Oats have been disappointed. In fact the rural studies course at Merrist Wood agricultural college in Guildford led Curtis to his current job as countryside ranger and manager at Ashtead Common in Surrey. At 28, he earns as much as his mother - a deputy headteacher.
Importantly, dropping out of college has not deprived him of academic qualifications. A pioneering project funded and organised by the Corporation of London - which owns and manages the common - and run with Middlesex University, has allowed him to take a work-based degree in countryside management. He is now taking an MSc in arboriculture through the same pilot project.
And thanks to the vision and practicability of Middlesex University's award-winning National Centre for Work Based Learning Partnerships, other corporation employees will get the opportunity to have their work-based experience formally recognised through qualifications ranging from NVQs to PhDs.
When Curtis mentions his job at parties, people can only think of the gun-toting Ranger Smith in Yogi Bear, he says. In the UK, the job used to involve one man, his dog and a Land Rover, but countryside management has expanded rapidly and become much more of a profession in recent years. In beautiful national nature reserves like Ashtead, Curtis can get involved in everything from writing policy documents to dressing up in a Loch Ness monster suit "to scare kids in canoes".
As Curtis and two other corporation employees prepare to receive the first awards from the work-based learning programme, the corporation has begun rolling out the scheme to the rest of its 3,500 staff.
The corporation is the local authority for the "square mile" of the City of London and also owns several green spaces further afield, including Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath. It is the biggest organisation to work with Middlesex on work-based learning to date.
A partnership agreement with the university was signed last September, and the Corporation is now doing mini-launches of the scheme in its 32 departments.
Chief Commoner of the corporation, Robin Eve - "the next one down from the Lord Mayor" - wholeheartedly embraced the idea when Professor Derek Portwood first broached the possibility of the corporation's involvement four years ago.
He says: "I thought it was a fantastic idea for all the people who have the ability but haven't had the opportunity or who have spurned the opportunity. The great ting is that these courses can be tailored for someone in the housing department as easily as for someone in open spaces."
Eve, who originally trained as an accountant, thinks "it's a bit late" for him to take up such an opportunity himself, but hopes that many staff will take advantage. "We hope the scheme will give people who never thought they'd get a degree a level of self-satisfaction, while from the corporation's point of view, we'll end up with much better-trained people."
Adam Curtis was originally employed partly because of his enthusiasm for self-development, but he actually joined the degree programme without knowing about the wider initiative. He had already got several countryside conservation qualifications, including a national diploma from Merrist Wood, under his belt.
In 1996, Curtis did various psychology and social science courses at Surrey University and the Open University in his spare time, just "to keep the brain ticking over". His manager suggested he take a look at the work-based learning programme then being set up and Curtis immediately signed up. "The previous courses I did were very prescribed, but this was absolutely spot-on and tailored to my needs," he enthuses.
The modular courses are very flexible and can be done with extensive tutorial support, by distance learning or a combination of both.
"The first thing you do is hand in a portfolio to demonstrate what knowledge you already have and back it up with evidence: vocational certificates, contracts you've written, leaflets you've designed," says Curtis.
His OU credits were transferred, amounting to one third of his final degree, and his extensive work-based portfolio gave him another third. He then completed a self-evaluation unit relating to career development, and did an 8,000-word dissertation about the invasive Michaelmas Daisies he had grown to hate at Ashtead, and how he was attempting to control the plants.
"As far as I know, I'm the only person in the world who's got a problem with the Michaelmas Daisy," he jokes. He also trialled the use of grazing cows, mowing, rolling and various herbicides for his project.
The degree means that Curtis is already more qualified than he need be to do his job, but his industry is "not about career or ambition but vocational recognition", he says.
Once he has completed his MSc he will be able to move into management or education, for example, while still effectively being a ranger. He has already shifted from doing the practical, outdoor work to managing it. But he still loves to get out into the woodland. "Yesterday I had a sparrowhawk nearly fly into my ankles when I was out working with the volunteers. That's what really makes it for me."