A note from the Commission of Land-Based Learning Review

Dr Liz Barron Majerik MBE MICFor

It doesn’t seem very long ago that I was both delighted and daunted to receive an invitation to Co-Chair the Commission for the Land-Based Review, a short-term advisory group assembled to provide independent, evidence-based advice to Scottish Ministers.

My fellow Commissioners and I came from a range of backgrounds and organisations, each bringing our own experience and understanding of the challenges involved, from early learning to university level, from sector specific expertise to that of community engagement and inclusion. We held several meetings, ran engagement workshops, and had numerous discussions with those wishing to share their perspectives. The level of engagement and the quality of the contributions was fantastic, and I want to thank all of those who were involved, and who gave their time to help ensure a better way forward was found.

We gathered evidence from a range of organisations, including the Scottish Funding Council, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and others, who again gave of their time to ensure we had the information we needed. This wasn’t easy.  Our sector is small, yet the industries and roles are diverse. Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, these are often aggregated to the point of the data being unhelpful.

Many of the opportunities and vacancies within the sector are often advertised and filled through word of mouth (or Facebook!) which also means they won’t ‘show’ as well as those promoted in the standard press. This means the Labour Market Intelligence (LMI) often lacks detail which makes the needs of the sector hard to quantify. Early on this was identified as something that needed to change. At the same time the nature of businesses (often microSMEs or contractors) mean they have little time to grapple with the intricacies of funding rules and requirements, let alone the requirements of Fair Work.

That there is a need for a strong and effective land-based sector is indisputable. How we define it could have been open to considerable debate, as might have been the potential solutions to our skills challenges, but there was no doubt about the need for those working in the sector to be skilled, productive, safe and to have a passion for our environment.

It is hence imperative that we find a solution to our current struggles to recruit. We need to attract more entrants (from a shrinking pool), gain support and interest from a wider audience and increase training opportunities and uptake. We have an aging workforce (more than half of our workers are over 50) and although things are improving, it’s still not very diverse, which limits both our potential and resilience. At the same time, we need to work on how we can better compete with larger, more well-known sectors, by demonstrating career opportunities that embrace fair work practices, help the environment, and which are clearly aligned with and support the Wellbeing Economy[1].

This won’t be easy. There are challenges associated with the often-rural location of our businesses and industries, such as housing, transport and childcare. We aren’t always seen as a priority, both in our target audience and within associated agencies. This is understandable as for a long time the priority has been to make sure unemployment is low. The focus hence being on larger organisations and sectors with growth-limiting skills gaps.  

Apologies for employing poor grammar to make a point around employment, but at a time of record employment, now is perhaps the time to move from ‘the more the better’ to ‘the better the more’.  To focus on impact, rather than size. Because now more than ever we need our young people, educators, career changers and influencers to help us find the solution to our climate and biodiversity crises, by choosing and promoting careers within our sector. For this to happen, we will need more training and support for those supporting career seekers and changers and more promotion of opportunities too.

It's not always an easy sell. There is interest of course, particularly around working with animals, though there are of course other options. Lots and lots of other options, though these are often almost invisible.  The career pathways presented are often amalgamated into ‘farm worker’ or ‘fishing/aquaculture’ (very different of course!) the sound of which is unlikely to spark excitement in your average school leaver.

This presents a significant challenge for the training providers and sector representatives who then have to work hard to promote careers, as well as doing ‘the day job’. It can also lead to peaks and troughs in the training provision, with expertise often lost with every downturn in interest, which is very hard to regain when numbers increase. We need to protect our provision, whilst supporting work to promote the sector by colleges, universities or our custodians of the living environment.  Their engagement with schools helps to ensure curriculum content is delivered but the wider message needs to be communicated and any practical skills that are developed must be praised and recognised.

Of course, we need our learners to have an educational experience flexible enough to encompass the skills development, learning and engagement opportunities that our sector can offer. We believe it can be so, and indeed throughout our work, examples of such activities were often shared. But there is a need for more consistency in uptake and application. For it isn’t just about meeting recruitment needs. Learning outdoors has long been recognised as essential for wellbeing. At nursery level a good care inspectorate inspection requires there to be evidence of daily access to and engagement with natural spaces. This isn’t required for schools.  

In a report produced by SNH in 2014[2] it was found that primary school pupils averaged 30 minutes of outdoor provision per pupil per week and for secondary pupils it was only 16 minutes per pupil per week. That is just under 4% of what we thought was the minimum amount time we needed to be outdoors during lock down. Is it any wonder that with such a limited amount of time spent outdoors that a career in our sector doesn’t occur to most school leavers? Or that they are only finding us and their ideal career after first pursing another path?

To increase outdoor learning and engagement with nature there needs to be space available. The whole school environment needs to be looked at when considering the development of our children. If we want them to respect and protect the natural world, they need a clear pathway of nature-based learning experiences across ALL levels of curriculum for excellence, and they need a learning space that supports this and helps them to flourish. This is why the Commission has also asked for a review of the school estate, so that opportunities for carbon reduction, climate change mitigation and the creation of accessible nature spaces can be identified. After all, the way children behave, the activities they get up to, the fun they have at break and at lunch undoubtably affect their behaviour and attitude in class.  We have a duty to make sure their whole learning environment supports them in the best way it can, developing skills that help build resilience, supporting their wellbeing and enthusiasm for learning. That just doesn’t happen when they are in front of a whiteboard, on a hard seat, or enclosed in a classroom with 30 other children.

I hope that you are able to take some time to read through our report, and that you join us in taking our next steps towards implementing solutions. I look forward to working with you!