'We believe that the future of craft lies in nurturing talent; children and young people must be able to learn about craft at school and have access to excellent teaching throughout their education.'
It's one of the Crafts Council's key pledges and it's why we're so proud (justifiably, I think) of our Firing Up scheme. Currently celebrating its second anniversary thanks to support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the aim of the project is to re-awaken school kilns all over England, introducing a new generation of children to the possibilities (both creative and practical) of clay, and encouraging them to take these skills further forward in their education and subsequently the wider economy. (As an aside, if you want to know how important material experimentation is to the commercial practice of a designer or architect, I heartily recommend Heatherwick Studio: designing the extraordinary currently on at the V&A.)
Led by a well-connected steering group with members from the National Society for Education in Art & Design (NSEAD), University of the Arts, London, and the independent arts organisation Clayground Collective, the programme is designed to develop regional 'clusters' - attaching a group of local schools to the ceramics department of a Higher Education Institute (HEI). In year one we focused on Plymouth College of Art and Design, the University of the Arts, London, and Liverpool Hope University. Bringing something like this to life is not merely a question of dusting off the school kiln in the corner of the art room and flicking the on switch. Knowledge has been drained out of the system over so many years that skills have to be re-learned.
So the first step is to rebuild the confidence of the teachers themselves, with 'twilight' training sessions at the Higher Education Institutes led by the course leader or a local maker. Importantly each school provides at least three members of staff, meaning that if someone leaves the wisdom isn't lost completely. Second, we create shared learning between teachers, makers and the HEI's with a series of Continual Professional Development (CPD) days, where teachers, makers and members of the HEI's ceramics department all get together at a nearby gallery or museum.
Third, we give children direct experience of professional makers because it is that role model that can help fire enthusiasm and passion. Clayground Collective provides a creative template for the schools to follow, where makers go into schools to do four days worth of workshops with a specific group of children throughout the year.
Next, the school has to have the physical means to teach ceramics, so a new kiln is fitted or existing equipment repaired, in a process we call 'Kiln Rehab', and the Crafts Council also brings in its Handling Collection of ceramics so children across the school can get a sense of what can be achieved with clay.
Finally, the pupils put on an exhibition as a celebration, usually at the college they have been working with - which allows their parents to have a good look around the facilities and gets the young people over the threshold. The by-product of all this is that the schools and Higher Education Institutes begin to forge a new relationship that we hope in time will become genuinely symbiotic - the schools benefit from the HEIs' know-how, while their pupils are inspired to further their studies at their local university. Everybody wins.
In Phase One of this three-phase scheme we reached 2,000 pupils through 24 schools. During Phase Two, we spread our net to four more universities - Staffordshire (launched by Tristram Hunt MP in his constituency of Stoke-on-Trent during the British Ceramics Biennial), Bath Spa, Manchester Metropolitan and Sunderland - with equally impressive results. The benefits to pupils and schools have been manifold. As Guy Haring, head of art at Torquay Community College rather poetically put it: "For me to be able to offer such a rich and valuable experience to young and creative minds has been so rewarding. The tactile qualities inherent in this plastic medium seem to exist somewhere deep in our psyche. Pupils appear to quite literally connect with the earth and start to make sense of their physical world.' On a more practical level, another teacher noted that 'there were a couple of challenging pupils who worked really well as they were well motivated and really engaged with the experience."
The third and final phase starts soon as our three-year agreement with our funders comes to a conclusion, but we think we've put a structure in place through these 11 clusters that can be taken forward in the future; offering them the chance to encourage other schools to join in the programme, and a model for others to use. At a time of dwindling resources in the education sector it's vital for the future of the crafts in this country that the scheme leaves a lasting legacy.
This blog post is also in the July/August 2012 issue of Crafts magazine.