West Coast agriculture training pilot makes system work for learners

Ag Pilot

West Coast agriculture training providers have embraced the intent of national vocational education reforms to create a sector-leading approach to primary industry training that makes it easier for students to get to work. Eighteen months into the pilot, those at its heart talk about turning the system on its head to make a difference for their students.

Looking out over the green pastures of Tai Poutini Polytechnic’s Reefton farm, Bryan Harris can see his students growing week-by-week as they gain the skills they need to get to work.

“This is the best bit of the job for me – watching them gain competencies and grow from shivering, scared kids to confidently driving a tractor and working with cattle. It’s a different journey for each of them and we’re really focusing on each student to make it work for them.”

Eighteen months into a pilot programme with the Primary ITO, which sees the two organisations working hand-in-hand to tailor agriculture learning to the student, Bryan says the idea is really starting to take off. The ground-breaking new partnership embraces the intent of the national Reform of Vocational Education. Launched by Tai Poutini Polytechnic and Primary ITO at the beginning of 2021, it aims to put the needs of the learner first. 

Traditionally, polytechnic students would learn basic skills in the classroom and in the field to get ready for work, while the ITO worked with employers to support apprentices already on the job. The new pilot programme effectively brings together the two approaches, meaning that learners on campus can go into work as soon as they are ready, then transition to the in-work programme in a supported and coordinated manner. Those on-the-job now have access to support and pastoral care to help them succeed.

As you can imagine, Bryan says, the training organisations have themselves had a learning curve to shift to a completely new way of working. 

Working together for the good of the learner

“We’ve had to learn to work together so we can make things work better for our learners,” Bryan says. “There’s no doubt that something had to change and it feels like we’ve really made progress on what is a great initiative for learners – but we had a few battles getting here!”

The benefits for the students are obvious, with clearer pathways, more flexibility and greater support from tutors right throughout their learning and first stages of work. Partnerships with employers are also becoming stronger as everyone works together toward the same goal. There have been learnings along the way, not least of which is that change takes time. But everyone involved agrees it is worth the effort.

Primary ITO Executive General Manager Andrea Leslie says the pilot programme is a big win for the West Coast, as well as benefitting learners.

“Over the past 18 months we’ve refined the delivery so learners can seamlessly move between the polytechnic to on-the-job, or back to the classroom, without disrupting their qualification.

“Our teams have worked hard to overcome the challenges that a new way of working presents and become more flexible in our approach. The result is exciting for us as education providers, for our learners and for the community where we’re helping to ensure education is regionally accessible.” 

Bryan describes the way two entirely different approaches to learning – one focused on teaching basic, practical skills to get students on the job, the other where students were already working so the bookwork took a more technical focus – have had to meld together to create a new, more supportive approach for learners.

“We’re ironing out the details, but the outcome is a whole new approach to learning that means we can get students on the farm sooner, but still provide that wrap-around support as they work through their apprenticeship.”

Why it works for students

Bryan offers two examples from this year of how the flexibility of the new approach has made a real difference for students with completely different learning needs.

“The first student was really academic but didn’t have a practical bone in his body. After a month in the classroom I thought: we’ve got to get him working. So we got him through the basics hard and fast, then got him on the farm where he could focus on learning to drive, fixing fences and managing cattle and finish the study after work. 

“The second was struggling in class and not getting far; by putting him to work sooner rather than later and supporting him to do the bookwork on a part-time basis over a longer period, we’re actually going to see him get there in the end.

“It shows that whether you’re academic or practical, we can make it work for you. And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for: to help the students do their best and get out there doing the job.”

Andrea says the examples show a real improvement to what we’ve seen in the past where people can fall through the cracks. By making the system work for the learner, and supporting them at all stages of their learning and work journey, we’re getting better outcomes for everyone. 

“It’s the best of both worlds for our learners. They have the opportunity to work in the classroom alongside their peers and experience the camaraderie of learning together, then when they’re on the job that support continues through more flexible options like online learning or having tutors available to talk through problems.”

A model for the future of NZ vocational training

As polytechnics and TITOs around the country transition to the new Te Pūkenga model, which will see all come under the same organisation in 2023, the West Coast agriculture training pilot is an early example of how the new system can work better for learners. 

Tai Poutini Polytechnic Chief Executive Alex Cabrera says the reforms have always had the potential to benefit the West Coast.

“We’ve been supportive of the intent of the reform since the outset; the intention to ensure fair access to vocational training no matter where you are in New Zealand has always been a good thing for the West Coast. We’re working hard as the new model rolls out to realise these benefits locally, be part of the solution and ensure continued access to relevant, quality vocational training in the regions that supports our economic development.

“By creating partnerships like our agriculture pilot, being prepared to change how we’ve always done things, and challenge ourselves to do better, vocational trainers now have the tools they need to really support students on their learning pathways,” he says.


Photo caption: Agriculture tutor Bryan Harris training students on the Reefton farm.


Published 30 September 2022