Sparsholt keeps pace

It has stood prominently in 700 acres of Hampshire countryside for the best part of 100 years, and is generally accepted as being one of the best agricultural colleges in the country.

And in keeping with its high standards, Sparsholt College has managed to keep pace with the massive changes that have taken place within land-based industries over the past few years.

Yes, its tutors can still teach the skills required to turn a willing teenager into an accomplished farmer. But with many farmers having suffered from the economic downturn and unable to employ on the scale they used to a few years ago, Sparsholt has adapted accordingly.

There is even a motor vehicle technology course available that provides an apprenticeship scheme with Jaguar-Land Rover. A tenuous land-based link maybe, but as the College’s marketing officer Sarah Harrop points out: “Farm machinery also needs to be maintained.”

Although based near Winchester, Sparsholt recruits from across the south and representatives often visit Isle of Wight schools eager to show students the advantages – or even disadvantages – of moving into such specialist fields of work, where passion is one of the most important requirements.

Courses are varied. There’s agriculture, animal management, vet nursing, forestry and woodland management and equine management. There is also a foundation course especially for students who have special educational needs, providing them with the skills and confidence for work.

The College also accommodates countryside management which offers a different viewpoint on how to manage land, as well as traditional gamekeeping with the facility to learn how to handle guns and shoot safely. Students will often go out and get work experience with various shoots around the area.

Then there is horticulture, with facilities on site such as traditional greenhouses, polytunnels, and everything you might imagine about plant care. Even sports turf courses and landscaping and garden design courses, which prove big attractions to career changers.

Fishery and aquatics is also on the varied list of courses, which also includes sports studies and outdoor education. Sarah points out: “We specialise in outward-bound sports as well as performance academies. We have acres of land for mountain biking, orienteering and students go further afield to practice specialist skills.

“Tied in with this is the Public (Uniformed) Services course which is fabulous for anyone thinking of going into armed service, the police or fire service. Generally those services prefer older school-leavers with a level of maturity that this course enables students to build.

“The course covers things like leadership skills and team working skills, so there is a lot of ‘outward bound’ type activities. They also learn about civic responsibility and get to see the different services functioning in different ways. So it does give them a very broad grounding, and raises that maturity.

Sarah continued: “We are a specialist college, so the students who come here know they want to work with animals, agriculture, fish or whatever. In general, they have already chosen their career path.

“We have built on our traditional agricultural courses to reflect the changes in working practices in the countryside. One of our strengths is that we are very keen our students are employable when they leave here.

“They have the skills, qualification and work experience, which is also important. All of our academic departments have strong networks within industries, which can provide our graduates with contacts for future employment.

Students arrive at Sparsholt from the age of 16, and as a College funded by the Local Education Authority, there are no fees up to the age of 19. “For most further education students, accommodation and transport are the most expensive elements of coming to College. However, we have a residential bursary enabling us to contribute towards some accommodation costs, depending on the circumstances of the family.

“Just like your local sixth form college, fees and exams are paid, but then there are things like specialist clothing and boots which might be covered by the Educational Maintenance Allowance paid to students staying on in full-time education.

From the age of 19 the College offers a range of Degree and Foundation Degree courses, validated by the University of Portsmouth. But students can be any age, particularly people re-training and changing careers. Fees for full-time courses range between £3,000 and £4,000 a year, and there are a range of part-time courses also available to help people improve their skills or learn something new.

Equine management is one of the most popular courses. The complex has indoor and outdoor facilities, with stabling for 70 horses. Sarah revealed: “We have been elected as a training camp for the 2012 Olympics, so we are hoping we will have a national team staying here in preparation for the Games, which would be a fantastic experience for students.

“With equine management the emphasis is strongly on horses, and also a large element of riding practice. But through the two-year course one student went on to become a saddle maker, and another went into journalism – it’s not just patting ponies.”

She continued: “We have been on this site since 1914, and farm 140 acres of land with a variety of livestock. But over the last few years we have put a lot of investment into diversifying areas we are able to offer.

“The students who come here are a complete mix because it is about passions. We like to think we can broaden peoples’ aspirations. We offer a whole variety of courses depending on GCSE results. If someone has the passion, we can accommodate them, develop their skills and learning, and bring them through to employable status.”

Sarah added: “Students do need to be sure that it is what they want to do, because three months into a course it is too late to change to another one, as there is too much catching up to do. But all of our students are invited for an interview; an informal chat to show us they are committed to what they want to do.

Sparsholt takes in 1,800 students and has accommodation for over 400 on site. Students take a room for the academic year and come and go as they wish. The campus has a village feel with a team of wardens who are on hand to deal with emergencies as well as the general welfare and well-being of our residents.

“Emphasis is on the employability of our students once they leave here with the skills to make a contribution to their chosen career area. It is the diversity of courses that sustains Sparsholt as a college, reflecting changes in the rural economy across the country. “Many students studying on agriculture courses have a farming background, so they already have some awareness of this issue of the farming community.

“After students have left, we often keep in touch, and see how they are faring, and how they feel about the College. Our students have the advantage that they have the qualifications and practical hands-on skills and they all have a large element of work experience from their time here. Very often, if they perform well in their work experience placement, that might provide a route into industry.”

Sarah added: “You can’t get round it, times are tough, but we are not flooding the market with surplus skills that aren’t required. The skills and experience our students take with them contributes to the life-blood of what keeps our countryside going.

“As a College we are in a sound financial position with a strong Board of Governors guiding a strong and experienced management team. As a College, we are continuing to invest in new facilities where many others are faced with cuts and we make the most of all our resources. We hope to be here providing the skilled talent for land-based and rural industries for another 100 years at least.