A Classroom Culture Clash

If Britain is to protect its international reputation in the arts and creative industries and the sector is to flourish in the future then it's crucial that these subjects - of which crafts are a vital part - are taken seriously in our schools.

Judging from the figures released at the turn of the year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the UK's creative industries are in fine fettle. Worth more than £70bn last year, the sector accounts for just over five percent of the UK economy, and a good eight percent of the nation's exports. And currently, it's also the country's fastest growing sector. In a recent keynote speech, culture secretary Maria Miller emphasised the economic and cultural importance of the arts, and stressed their significance in education. 'It is right that we are emphasising science, technology, engineering and maths in the school curriculum,' she said. 'These are subjects which have been neglected for too long. But the arts remain a core component of any child's education. They are a must-have, not an add-on.'

All of which means the publication of our new report, Studying craft: trends in craft education and training, is extremely timely. It raises a plethora of issues and it would be impossible to do it justice in the space I have here. However, a few salient points are worth mentioning.

The creative industries may be booming, but you sense the news hasn't filtered through to the education department - or for that matter to some parents. As the report makes clear, the continuing exclusion of art from the English Baccalaureate performance measures devalues it in the eyes of some schools, pupils and parents alike. Participation in craft-related GCSEs fell by 19 percent between 2007-08 and 2010-11, for instance. As one head of art put it, parents are focused on employment after their children leave school. 'What can you get with art and design?' is a frequently asked question apparently. 'They aren't aware of the growth in creative industries or the range of jobs,' the teacher concludes.

It's a sentiment that's echoed in another of our case studies from an Academy school in the Midlands, where it's hard to persuade the most academic pupils to consider the creative disciplines as a career. 'Getting those gifted and talented students who are also able in academic subjects to take A-level art and design is a battle,' we were told.

This is an issue that feeds into Higher Education, where in the last five years a disturbing 39 percent of courses have closed. During the same period, the number of ceramics and glass courses has fallen by 67 percent to a paltry 15. (Balancing this, it is worth noting the paradox that, between 2007-08 and 2010-11, undergraduate participation increased by 14 percent, bolstered perhaps by the increased number of overseas students.) Students going to universities lack the skills that those in a previous generation took for granted. According to a programme co-ordinator of undergraduate textile courses, some students arrive having had no experience of using a sewing machine, or in some instances of how to stitch: 'There has also been a steady decline in drawing activity in schools: the National Curriculum content has considerably reduced the requirement for drawing expertise, and that has to be mitigated.'

Government ministers, such as former minister of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning John Hayes, are putting great emphasis on the need to create apprenticeship schemes. And while this is a laudable sentiment, the reality is that it's hard for makers - who are often self-employed - to take on extra hands. That said, the evidence suggests that where they can there are distinct benefits. The report highlights the Eastnor Pottery, which recently received funds from the Creative Employment Programme to run a full-time Community Arts Apprenticeship for a year. 'The business has never been busier, but having someone around all the time to share tasks and experiences has induced a sense of calmness, and probably increased my own personal effectiveness,' an interviewee from the pottery explains.

From the Crafts Council's point of view we will be continuing to make the case and develop projects that address the issue. The Firing Up programme - which the Crafts Council delivered in partnership with higher education institutions - demonstrated that, when children and young people are given the opportunity to engage in making, the impact can be profound, with the benefits of craft to the learner extending into other subjects, such as science and maths.

Similarly, the government's new approach to apprenticeship programmes suggests it is listening, and wants to support small businesses in developing appropriate schemes. The Crafts Council is working with Creative and Cultural Skills as well as other craft organisations and businesses in addressing this.

It's too early to draw any hard and fast conclusions from all this information. In the meantime we will be holding meetings in Margate, London, Cheltenham and Manchester, where the findings of this study will can be discussed, and an education manifesto drawn up to be presented to the government.

If Britain is to protect its international reputation in the arts and creative industries and the sector is to flourish in the future then it's crucial that these subjects - of which crafts are a vital part - are taken seriously in our schools.

To download the report go to: www.craftscouncil.org.uk

Lady Gloria Dale

One person who was both a passionate advocate of craft and a firm believer in continuing to learn was Lady Gloria Dale, 91, who sadly passed away on 18 December 2013. Lady Dale was a lifelong supporter of contemporary craft and a long-standing patron of the Crafts Council. Her genuine interest in, and concern for, makers came from her own experience as a textile and jewellery designer. This sensibility combined with her knowledge and passion meant that she had been a valued supporter of not just of ourselves but also Cockpit Arts and Contemporary Applied Arts as well as many makers. She will be sorely missed.

This blog post also appears in the March/April 2014 issue of Crafts Magazine

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