'Tell us what you need' - principal urges farming community to help shape Easton College's future
Norfolk farmers can help shape a brighter future for the county's failing agricultural college - but only if they grasp the opportunity to tell its new educational partners what skills they need to recruit.
That is the appeal from Corrienne Peasgood, the principal of City College Norwich (CCN), which is due to merge with the Norfolk campus of Easton and Otley College following the intervention of further education commissioners after two "inadequate" Ofsted ratings.
In response to concerns from rural employers, Mrs Peasgood reassured farmers that she was "absolutely, totally committed" to keeping land-based and agricultural courses at the core of Easton's curriculum. She acknowledged that CCN was not an expert in agriculture - but pointed out that the college has a proven track record in harnessing industry support to develop successful specialist curriculums in other subject areas, such as IT and digital.
She aims to repeat that formula within the agricultural community, starting with hosting a canapé and drinks reception from 4pm-8pm on June 26, in the Debut Restaurant at the Royal Norfolk Show.
The drop-in event aims to give farmers and rural employers the opportunity to give their opinions on Easton's future and ask any questions about the merger.
"It is our opportunity to talk to the agricultural and wider land-based community, all in one go," said Mrs Peasgood. "It is the one event of the year where everyone comes together and it would be an absolute missed opportunity for us not to do that.
"We are absolutely totally committed to carrying on with the agricultural and land-based courses, there is no intention whatsoever to stop that.
"In fact what we want to do is grow and continue the improvements that Jane [Easton College principal Jane Townsend] and her colleagues have started.
"We are not the experts. We are not coming in and saying that we know what is needed - but the farmers and producers are. They know what skills shortages they have got on the ground right now, what they are looking for in their business plans for the next five years and what they are worried about at that point in terms of skills.
"That is what we want them to do - to have the opportunity to say to us: 'This is what we would like Easton College to do for us'."
If the proposed merger goes ahead on December 31, the Easton campus will merge with CCN, with an informal support role played by the University of East Anglia (UEA) - which had submitted an unsuccessful competing bid to take Easton College under its wing.
But Mrs Peasgood said the CCN merger ensured the UEA would retain its important influence on land-based education in Norfolk.
"The UEA is our sole validating partner of all of our degrees," she said. "UEA is also the sole validating partner of Easton and Otley College. So we already have a very good relationship with the UEA. I have been in constant contact with the vice chancellor throughout this entire process. We were both absolutely committed all the way through, whichever was the successful proposal, that we would continue to work in partnership to deliver the best for the agricultural community.
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"So for the higher education side of things in agri-food tech, we will be taking that forward with the UEA very strongly and very positively."
A TEMPLATE FOR SUCCESS?
Mrs Peasgood said the college's growth in the IT sector could be a template for improving the land-based provision at the Easton campus.
"Until about five years ago we did very little in the IT and digital space, but we knew it was a curriculum area our county wanted," she said. "So rather than start with qualifications we started by talking to the industry about what their skills needs were for entry level jobs.
"We then spoke to young people and teachers in high schools to understand what their capabilities were, and then 'mapped the gap' and designed the curriculum around that, completely with the employers, who then signed up to take the students out on work placement, or to come in and give specialist talks and masterclasses.
"Now we have got really healthy apprenticeship figures in the sector, we have quadrupled the number of full-time students, and based on that experience and our sector knowledge, we were just successful in getting £6m from the LEP [New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership] to build a £9m digi-tech building to continue to grow that provision.
"I think that's a really good example of something that was not originally a specialist area for us. We worked with industry to build the curriculum, grow the provision and get the capital investment for the resources we need.
"That is the model we will use, and it goes right back to talking to industry, to employers, to sector groups, to really understand what they want."
THE SKILLS DEFICIT
A vocal figure in Norfolk's farming community has outlined the skills deficit in his industry - and the scale of the challenge facing Easton College.
Andrew Melton, regional agronomy sales manager for Frontier Agriculture, has previously been critical of the college's management and has called for a "new direction, and a new understanding of what they want to be in five years' time".
And he says the opportunity of engagement between Norfolk farmers and educators is too important to be missed.
"What is missing [from the students] is a complete understanding of the practical aspects of agriculture," he said. "They can drive a tractor built in the 1960s, but are they fit for purpose to come and join our contract team with a £300,000 self-propelled sprayer with satellite navigation and all the computers? We are in a digital age of precision farming so we need people who are IT savvy.
"There is a huge difference from 20 years ago. We need people to work in our lab, people working on distribution in the stores, and in the agronomy and farm trading businesses. But it is very difficult to get the calibre of people that we are looking for, and that our customers demand.
"We want the opportunity to engage with people and be part of the learning process. As an old Eastonian myself, I am very passionate about that. Our company would be delighted to help. It is so important, and there are huge opportunities so let's get on with it."