Fears over impact of college closure on young farmers
By Stuart Laundy - Senior Reporter
THE planned closure of Newton Rigg College has raised questions over how Teesdale's farmers – and those seeking other land-based careers – will access training in the future.
The college, in Penrith, is due to close in July, after attempts to secure a new operator for the site ended in failure in December.
Generations of the dale’s young farmers have attended courses in a range of subjects including animal and equine management, forestry, gamekeeping, horticulture and agricultural engineering.
Newton Rigg was acquired by York’s Askham Bryan College in 2011, which absorbed losses and invested “considerable” funds in the campus.
However, a review last year concluded Newton Rigg was not financially viable and bids were invited from parties interested in securing its long term future.
After a six month process, a team led by a land-based specialist, and involving officials from Askham Bryan, the Education and Skills Funding Agency and Eden Council, concluded the two groups bidding for Newton Rigg “failed to meet the expectations and criteria” set out to secure its future and backed its closure. Work is continuing to establish whether some form of reduced, alternative training can be provided at Newton Rigg, but the search is also on to find a buyer – or several buyers – for the site.
Julia Stephenson, training co-ordinator at Utass (Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services), said the impact of Newton Rigg’s closure would be felt by many in the dale.
“It’s a cause close to everyone’s hearts,” she said.
“If the closure does happen, there will be no opportunity for trainees from our area to access apprenticeships or full time courses to learn the diverse skills and knowledge needed to specialise in hill farming, which are uniquely provided by Newton Rigg.
“What will happen for next year’s apprentices and full time trainees and how can they be equipped to carry on as the next generation of farmers?”
Members of Cumbria Young Farmers’ Club – which has its headquarters at Newton Rigg – last week released a video in support of the doomed campus. Across the border in Teesdale, former students have expressed their disappointment at the college’s planned closure.
Young farmer Jack Hutchinson said the prospect of Newton Rigg’s closure as “appalling”.
Mr Hutchinson, from Forest-in-Teesdale, attended Newton Rigg from 2017-19, completing a Level 3 technical diploma in agriculture. He described his time in Penrith as “two of the best years so far”.
He added: “I didn’t want to go on to sixth form after school. I just wanted to do agriculture and I felt it [Newton Rigg] was the only real option to me.”
Mr Hutchinson, 19, said the training he received had given him an extensive overview of the industry.
“Growing up on a hill farm, you don’t really learn about arable or dairy. It gives you a different perspective and you get a rounded view of the industry,” he added.
“If Newton Rigg closes, there is no local option. The nearest is Mysercough, in Preston, or Northumberland, but these are not the same set up.
“To me, it would feel like you were getting a worse quality of education just because they wanted to get rid of Newton Rigg. It’s appalling really.”
Since leaving Newton Rigg, Mr Hutchinson travelled to New Zealand, where he worked as a shearer, and since returning he has set up his own sheep shearing business.
Joshua Atkinson, of Rose Tree Farm, Forest-in-Teesdale, studied alongside Mr Hutchinson and echoed his former classmate’s comments.
“There is nothing else nearby and Newton Rigg has the hill farm there as well, which is relevant to people who live up here,” he said.
Mr Atkinson, also 19, said the academic and scientific knowledge he gained from attending Newton Rigg complemented the practical skills he had learned growing up on the farm.
“A lot of people recommended Newton Rigg to me and said it would be the best thing you will ever do.”
Tim Whitaker, Askham Bryan principal, said: “We had all hoped that the [review] process would conclude in receiving a successful submission, and so I understand the sense of disappointment amongst staff, students and stakeholders.”