As the Sparsholt College-branded jeep passes a working farm, an aquatics centre and a zoo containing more 1,200 animals, it quickly becomes apparent that this is no run-of-the-mill FE institution.
Sparsholt, which is situated five miles outside of Winchester in rural Hampshire, is one of England’s 14 land-based colleges. Thanks to its pioneering work with zoos overseas, its name is becoming known across the globe.
The college offers courses in agricultural and rural subjects, and has almost 5,000 full- and part-time learners on its books. In 2006, its Animal Management Centre became a licensed zoo; today, it holds more than 200 species.
Feeding time at the zoo
Despite the storm howling outside, principal Tim Jackson insists that the college’s star attraction – Mya the red panda, who arrived last year (pictured, right) – is doing well. Other exhibits include meerkats and lemurs, while the reptile and amphibian department alone is home to more than 700 residents.
The zoo, which hosts private events throughout the year but is not open to the public, is largely run by Sparsholt students who are currently enlisted on the college’s courses on animal management. Students dressed in the centre’s dark green uniforms can be spotted transporting sackloads of animal feed from enclosure to enclosure.
Only a small portion of the students’ time is dedicated to such tasks, explains vice-principal Martin Simmons. The bulk of their time is spent learning how to look after the animals and how to make their living environment as natural as possible.
Sparsholt’s animal and zoo management courses cover everything from animal care to zoo husbandry, but it is the Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA) for which the college is gaining a global reputation.
The two-year programme, one of the most respected and sought-after courses of its type, is designed to cover many aspects of the zookeeper’s role. “It’s so much more than picking up poo,” Simmons explains.
Back in 2005, the college formed a relationship with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza) and began to offer the DMZAA in the UK and Ireland. Owing to the challenges of accessing appropriately qualified staff, the college soon began to develop online learning strategies in order to deliver the programme remotely.
Sparsholt now offers the course to up to 80 students annually from partner zoos in the UK and overseas. A zoo professional in each region acts as a coordinator, supporting the learners and ensuring that they adhere to the same set of standards. The DMZAA, accredited by the City and Guilds awarding body, begins with a four-day residential at Sparsholt, with the rest of the programme delivered online.
The impact is being felt around the world; one former student has even set up a zoo in Latvia. “She became a coordinator and we now run a distance learning programme based in Riga,” Simmons says. “We’ve pulled in people from Moscow Zoo and [Leningrad Zoo in] St Petersburg, and we’ve also got someone in the Middle East. They’re like Sparsholt College outposts.”
In order to broaden Sparsholt’s international offering, the college has been busy setting up “outposts” as far afield as China and India, which work by using international coordinators to facilitate zookeeper training using the Sparsholt system.
The partnership in China has proven more challenging than some, but after a trip there last year, Jackson is confident that his ear-popping travels between Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu’s zoos will prove fruitful.
“The challenge for us, particularly in China, is language,” Jackson says. “Whereas in Riga and the United Arab Emirates we’ve done the course in the English language, in China, it has been trickier.”
Simmons adds: “I know as far as the Russian ones are going, they are using a lot of Google Translate. When you do technical translations [it’s more straightforward] than love letters, which have got lots of nuance, metaphor and idiom. People describing in very dry terms what the right materials to use are for an enclosure actually translates quite well. We’re not getting complete gobbledygook back.”
But, in spite of the language difficulties, at the heart of Sparsholt’s approach is a desire to work closely with employers to ensure that their workforce is properly skilled and qualified to deliver. “This is employer engagement at its very, very best,” Simmons says.
So what is next for Sparsholt College? An initiative to put zoo supervisors through a CMI (Chartered Management Institute) suite of qualifications will be launched in March. Plans to expand the range of animals living at the zoo, in order to broaden the experiences of its learners, are also afoot.
But irrespective of which exotic species will be the next to arrive in the rolling hills of Hampshire, the welfare of the animals is Sharsholt’s main concern. “While people have different standards of what a zoo should be, every zoo aspires to the best standards,” Jackson explains. “European and American zoos are probably the leading zoos in the world, so the standards of care tend to get cascaded and emulated. Within time, this will become a worldwide standard.”
But the ethical dilemma that comes along with keeping an animal in captivity is particularly tricky to weigh up, Simmons acknowledges. “How do you square the fact that they’ve got a lion behind bars in terms of ethical considerations?
“As a punter gets more intelligent about what they’re expected to find at a sanctuary or wildlife area, so we train our students on how to be better versed and able to articulate what the ethical and welfare concerns of the animals under their care are.”
Thanks to students trained by Sparsholt, that message is now spreading to zoos across the world.
Sparsholt: a history
1899: The college is established as Hampshire’s first farm school
2003: Begins offering its Diploma in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium Animals (DMZAA)
2005: Becomes a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums
2006: Awarded its first zoo licence
2013: Sparsholt’s DMZAA is launched in the United Arab Emirates
2014: The college’s animal and zoo management department is rated outstanding by Ofsted
2015: Mya, an 18-month-old red panda, is introduced to Sparsholt’s Animal Management Centre