With Skills Minister Matthew Hancock wanting the 24+ Advanced Learning Loan System used to fund courses with a “direct line of sight to work,” FE Week reported how loans were paying for apparently leisure-focussed courses. Among them was a level three certificate in horticulture that was for less than four hours a week. The report was wrong to say such a course might be leisure-focussed, according to David Henley.

I am sorry to say the FE Week piece (‘New Loans being used for Leisure’) is a classic illustration of the prejudice and lack of understanding that, unfortunately, is often directed at land-based qualifications.

At Bicton College we are proud of the real difference we make to people’s lives, providing new skills and work-related qualifications across a wide range of land-based industries.

Last year our work was inspected by Ofsted and we were graded as good in all fields [including headline and sub fields] and over 80 per cent of our students progress on to careers or additional training leading to their chosen profession. I would suggest this is a statistic that many colleges or training providers would be delighted with.

My main contention with the FE Week piece is that to suggest that the land-based courses cited are akin to leisure subjects is misinformed at best and, frankly, insulting at worst.

The horticulture industry is big business, contributing an estimated £9bn to the UK economy each year (Horticulture Matters, RHS report, 2013).

The industry needs an estimated 11,000 new entrants in the next decade to satisfy skills needs within the sector.

Well-trained horticulturalists can and do earn good money in landscape design, grounds and gardens maintenance, crop production, plant breeding and in the South West are in as much demand as a good plumber.

Our course supports people who are in the industry or want to get in to it and it provides the practical skills necessary to do the job — it is not designed for people to have fun, although, as with any good course, students do enjoy it.

Similarly, the slur directed at creative craft courses is also misdirected and obviously carelessly made.

Like all colleges, we don’t make the rules regarding fundable qualifications or loans.We just follow them to provide all our learners with the best opportunities that we can”

We support adult students, often women returners, whose creative talents are released and inspired by our passionate teachers.

Many go on to start their own businesses and make a worthwhile contribution to the rural economy.

The current students have multiple motivations, but the skills they are learning are valued by people living and working in the rural economy.

Like all colleges, we don’t make the rules regarding fundable qualifications or loans.

We just follow them to provide all our learners with the best opportunities that we can. Although early days, our initial small allocation for loans has been exceeded and we expect that demand for loans will continue to increase as learners assess the benefit of achieving a career change or increasing their employability versus the cost of the loan.

And we don’t discriminate. We cater for young and mature learners alike, men and women, and the vast majority of our learners across all subjects progress into useful careers.

As a final point, [FE Week editor] Nick Linford’s tweet seems to imply that the article was prompted by a throwaway remark made by a principal in a meeting of colleges. Without being rude, one would think that serious journalism would warrant a little more careful research.

David Henley, principal, Bicton College in Devon



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