'You can demand any curriculum innovation you want, but if it’s not on the EBacc, you’re wasting your time'

Calls for an agriculture GCSE are all well and good, but the system isn’t set up for such change, says Bernard Trafford

Realistic aspirations: It's dangerous to tell children that they can be anything they want to be, says Bernard Trafford

Television's “face of the countryside”, Countryfile’s jovial farmer-star Adam Henson, made headlines last weekend when he called for the introduction of a GCSE in agriculture.

The Sunday Times devoted a leader to his suggestion – but chose to poke fun at it. Of four joke GCSE questions, the first was "What is slurry? (a) liquid manure? (b) anyone after five pints of cider?"

I don’t mind a laugh: we educators frequently become over-serious and forget to engage our sense of humour. Still, on reflection, I reckon Adam's suggestion deserved fuller consideration than the paper accorded it.

As you’d expect, there are already qualifications in agriculture. Northern Ireland actually already has a GCSE in it. England doesn’t: but an online search swiftly located Pearson’s new BTEC in agriculture, ready to start teaching in 2018. Yes, BTEC! All these years on, BTEC, the great survivor, is still doing a great job in vocational education, even while we take axes to, and build bonfires of, myriad other qualifications.

The Independent Schools Council (which produces a useful daily digest of education in the news, by no means restricted to private schools) took the suggestion seriously and called for a debate: should children learn more about valuing where their food, water and fuel come from?

Teachers of biology, geography and PSHE will claim they’re already learning a great deal. They are: perhaps the ISC should have asked, instead, should children be more aware? Aware of elements of health, nutrition and the causes of obesity, for a start: not when they’re in the classroom, but when they’re spending their money at the corner-shop on the way to school.

Understanding where food comes from

More-aware children might also seek a deeper understanding of food production: and be better equipped to make ethical decisions about the foods they choose to eat (I’m a carnivore, so this isn’t a piece of hidden proselytising for vegetarianism).

They might wonder, as I do, why this country is so complacent about the fact that it’s so far from becoming food self-sufficient. It seems irresponsible to me that we make so little effort to ensure that we can feed and clothe ourselves – even if we choose to export much of what we produce and, to add variety and boost trade, import a balancing quantity.

Finally, there is the threat that, post-Brexit, we shall be short of farmers. I don't suggest that a farming GCSE would encourage hordes of 16-year-olds to go to work in the fields. Nonetheless, when we no longer admit labourers from Europe, who will pick the crops, vegetables and fruits that we do grow?

We’re still falling woefully short in terms of producing a technically advanced workforce, and are failing properly to value the apprenticeship route into skilled work: but let’s not overlook the need also to train the people who will feed us. They too will work in an industry becoming more scientifically and technically complex all the time (have you watched harvesting done by GPS-guided machinery? It’s an awesome sight).

A GCSE in agriculture could be a great addition to the choices available. But this is a purely academic discussion (no pun intended). This government won't permit farming to enter the GCSE canon: even if it did, few pupils would choose the subject because of the pressure on schools to focus tightly on the EBacc subjects that policymakers regard as exclusively worthwhile and valuable.

In a letter to The Times (11 September) about the narrowing of subjects in Year 9, NAHT’s deputy general secretary, Nick Brook, could equally have been talking about Adam Henson’s proposal:

“We want to see a change in the system where a broad and balanced curriculum, as well as a broad range of skills and knowledge, are valued by government in the same way that they are valued by students, parents and employers.”

Amen to that: but the change won’t come quickly. Pupils choosing GCSEs and hoping to see agriculture on the menu are in for a long wait.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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