Saturday, December 9, 2023

A driving passion to foster and facilitate teaching agriculture

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Ross Redpath has devoted his career to advancing agricultural education in the secondary school system.
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Inglewood educationist Ross Redpath has a driving passion to foster and facilitate the teaching of agriculture in his local Taranaki secondary schools and nationwide. 

He recognises the importance of the subject to students, and the need to support teachers and encourage industry support and involvement. 

Redpath taught at Inglewood High School for over 34 years and spent nearly a decade of that time as assistant principal and the teacher in charge of AgHort Science.

He has devoted himself to encouraging the development of agricultural and horticultural teaching in secondary schools.

Redpath and his wife Vicki live on a 56.6ha farm running 50 mostly Texel cross and some Kelso ewes, their lambs, and 120 cattle. 

Vicki is a Large Animal vet at New Plymouth District Vet Group.

The farm has allowed Redpath to live his farming passion, share that passion with his students, and show them some of the practical aspects and opportunities in the agricultural industry. 

Redpath now works for Taranaki’s LA Alexander Agricultural College Trust, which was established in 1987 and acts as an agricultural trust with a focus around agricultural education. 

Leonard Allen Alexander was a visionary and had a healthy regard for education and community good. In his will he left his Tikorangi estate and the Winthorpe Stud, a racehorse stud of significance, to the New Plymouth High School Board to create a “training establishment for agricultural and pastoral students and generally for all purposes of an agricultural college”. 

The farm is presently leased to Faull Farms Limited and is used as part of its large dairy farm.

Redpath is employed as an agriculture education and project adviser. Part of his role is to visit schools that lack the capability to deliver the NCEA Level 3 Agricultural and Horticultural Science course and teach that course to their students. 

“Another part of my role is supporting teachers that are new to the subject or new to teaching. I also work with agencies like Venture Taranaki to determine where they and education can intersect,” Redpath says.

For some time the trust has been operating in the secondary education space, helping schools obtain facilities to support agricultural and horticultural teaching and offering tertiary students scholarships to support their studies.

Redpath has devoted his career to the advancement of agricultural education in the secondary school system. In recent years it’s become evident to him and the trust that the current educational landscape doesn’t always meet all of the industry’s needs. 

“Many of the nation’s current agriculture teachers are nearing retirement age, and there are no clear pathways leading newcomers into the profession. Without a teacher in the school you don’t have the subject in the school,” Redpath says.

“The entire presence of that subject, and the pathways that lead from it, are then potentially lost. Or at the very least they lose some relevance in terms of the key messaging and knowledge.” 

The growing detachment between rural and urban lifestyles has been touted as a problem for quite some time. It’s real and relevant, but Redpath feels that it’s only part of the problem. 

He recalls attending a Primary Industries conference in 2007 as one of the representatives of the agricultural and horticultural secondary education sector.

Many of the industry attendees initially wondered why the education representatives were there; after some consideration they then asked why they hadn’t attended previously. 

“It drills back to where our subject sits within the mindset of the industry. You don’t have mathematics or English industries,” Redpath says.

“But you do have an agricultural industry, and a school subject directly aligned to that industry.  Often, that alignment has never been realised for its strategic position and untapped potential.”

This brings up the question of who should have the oversight of agricultural education in secondary schools. Should it sit under the Ministry of Education, in which it is one small subject, or should it sit with the Ministry for Primary Industries? 

“The ministries may have the most skin in the game. It’s an interesting quandary, considering who actually gains the most from strong and robust agricultural education,” Redpath says.

Redpath has had the advantage of looking at agricultural education in California, the United States in general, and Europe, where the systems are quite different. 

In the US, the industry sees the strategic advantage of agricultural education and takes the lead in ensuring its support. It’s seen as very important at the state government level, where legislators understand that they won’t have a strong industry without a strong educational presence.

“From that basis, they make a priority of everything from teacher training and support to the programmes offered in school. And importantly, the multiple pathways from the school stage, and the following steps are appropriately promoted, encouraged and supported,” Redpath says.

Redpath feels that there has always been a place in the industry for students who struggle with pure academic learning. 

He has often found that the skills that a particular student is perceived as not being strong in can flourish and grow when they’re applied in a practical agricultural role. It may simply be a case of calculating the amount of drench required to drench calves. Maths then becomes real for them.

Ross Redpath and his wife Vicki live on a 56.6ha farm running 50 mostly Texel cross and some Kelso ewes, their lambs, and 120 cattle.

The entry to agriculture has a dual pathway. A student can begin working directly on the land, or can go in at an academic level and work in that area of the industry. 

“I’ve run many teacher training days where I’ve asked the teachers how often their school dux studied ag or hort. The typical reply is that they don’t. To which I reply ‘Why not?’ I view secondary school agricultural education as very much part of the agricultural industry,” Redpath says.  

The agricultural industry has put in significant resources around teaching materials and promotion. In recent years, Redpath feels, DairyNZ and other industry bodies have provided some very good input promoting the dairy industry’s positive aspects. 

“Agricultural education begins with the teacher. If you haven’t got the teacher, the school isn’t going to offer the subject,” Redpath says.  

A key factor is to ensure that the industry story and its relevance are made accessible and available to as many people as possible. A great deal of that comes back to supporting teachers in their schools and ensuring good links between them and other training providers. 

If Redpath walks into a chemistry class, there’s a high degree of probability that the teacher will have some form of chemistry background, and an English teacher will usually have a BA degree. 

But the chance of him finding an agriculture or horticulture teacher with an agricultural or horticultural qualification is very low. 

“I’m an anomaly. I grew up on an east coast sheep, beef and deer station and went to Massey University where I completed an Agricultural Science degree. 

“I worked at home for a year but have always loved knowledge, sharing knowledge and unpacking knowledge. So I decided to go to Teachers College and began teaching with an Agricultural Science degree,” Redpath says.

“There are very few agriculture teachers with a similar degree because they get sucked up by the industry. If you don’t have an industry ‘native’ in the classroom unpacking their learning about the industry, such as milk production, profitability, sustainability, grass growth and soils, it suddenly becomes a bit tricky. 

“Therefore, those teachers need good support to grow into the role.” 

Redpath’s role, besides teaching, has been to pick up those teachers and provide them with support and knowledge growth of their subject. Taranaki is fortunate to have a number of teachers with genuine agricultural experience. 

Some schools form strong liaisons with particular farms and visit them on a regular basis. Redpath feels that this is a win-win situation for all of the parties involved. Those farmers have the knowledge and passion to share, and it’s hard to beat real-life, relevant learning examples. 

Schools are usually good at reaching out and linking up with the right sort of farmer. Those farmers must be genuinely passionate about the industry and have a passion to pass on their knowledge and experiences to others. 

“In agriculture there’s usually something to appeal to most students regardless of their abilities. The message those young people receive can’t be sugar-coated, but it has to be balanced, real and relevant,” Redpath says.

“In these days of social media and influencers, people pick up any negative message about the industry much faster than the positive ones. It usually requires multiple positive contacts to turn someone on to the industry. Yet just one bad experience or piece of inaccurate or biased  negative information can turn someone off the industry.”

For some struggling students, it only takes a teacher to believe and encourage them to set them on a successful path for life. 

Redpath fondly remembers taking a Level 1 NCEA course with a typical mix of students of varying abilities. 

One of those students had battled through school. For him, school was tough. He persevered and struggled, and Redpath steadfastly encouraged him. He attained 56% in Agricultural and Horticultural Science, which was the only subject he passed. He left school at the end of Year 11.

A few years later Redpath was at his local cross country day when a big voice call out “Ross!” 

“I turned around and a big guy thrust out his big hand and said, ‘I just want to thank you. You were the only bugger at school who believed that I could do anything.’ It was that student. On leaving school he’d got a farming job, had moved around a few other farms, and was now managing a farm,” Redpath says. 

“That experience exemplifies that there’s room for everyone within the dairy industry and agriculture in general. The tricky bit is to ensure that everyone gets accurate and correct information so they can achieve along their own pathway.” 

Redpath once spoke to a group of industry leaders and asked them what the outcome for the industry would be if the subject was taken out of secondary school. To them it was very obvious that it would be a very negative event. 

“So there’s obviously some benefit in ensuring that it never happens. The industry needs a supply of people who are engaged and have the ability to learn skills for a host of roles whether they want to be a Large Animal vet or an entry level farm assistant,” Redpath says.

He always emphasises that there is a broad spectrum of roles in the agricultural industry, and if you take one component out, the entire pack of cards falls over. 

“If agricultural education is done right, it supports the industry and its future,” Redpath says.

“If you have an impact on the industry, then you need to be part of the conversation. Schools are not the sole entry point into the industry, but they will remain a significant entry point.”

This article first appeared in the November edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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