Oskar Paulinski is talking Education Guardian through his design for a birdhouse, conceived in the style of a chocolate box-perfect country cottage. Holes in the roof, fashioned to look like skylights, will allow the birds to fly in and out, and doors at ground level allow access to the box’s owner. The pencilled plan shows pretty paned windows. “I’m still figuring out whether to paint them on or leave it as glass,” says the 16-year-old. We discuss whether nesting birds might prefer the darker interiors afforded by the painted option.
“I like practical stuff and designing stuff,” says Oskar, who is studying for a GCSE in resistant materials at Strood academy, in Medway. Does he know what he’d like to do for a job when he’s older? “I haven’t decided yet, but it has to be something practical.”
Simon Ofield-Kerr, vice-chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), might view Oskar’s window question as a perfect example of the importance of realising designs in real materials, for real use. Creations that exist solely on paper won’t teach their designers how to take account of the way wood, metal or textiles actually work, or push them to think about the needs of consumers – be they human or avian.
Yet schoolchildren of all ages are increasingly missing out on the opportunity to enjoy and learn from “making things”, Ofield-Kerr says. Sewing, ceramics, metalwork, woodwork and crafts are all on the wane as digital disciplines take hold and resources become scarcer. Not that there’s anything wrong with digital, he stresses, but translating it to the real world is essential.
“My sense, when I go into schools, is that it’s all become very flat,” he says. “It’s become a 2D world. Young people are becoming incredibly confident in their use of digital, and that’s wonderful. But they’re not getting the experience of how the material world around them is fabricated and developed.”
And as policymakers focus on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths), he says, “kids are just not getting the same experience of playing with clay, with materials, of doing embroidery, of getting their hands dirty”. He believes craft education is being better sustained in the private sector.
UCA is the sponsor of the four-year-old Strood academy – a non-grammar school in an area with selective education – and is working to ensure that making things is a key part of its offering. There are traditional workshops for wood, metal, plastics, clay and textiles, GCSEs in textiles and resistant materials, and an A-level in product design. Pupils spend time in the art and craft workshops at UCA’s nearby Rochester campus, and UCA students come into the school as mentors for days of project-based learning.
Strood’s principal, Kim Gunn, believes the sense of achievement her students get from seeing their finished work is second to none. “They experience success in areas where maybe they wouldn’t otherwise, and it provides them with an opportunity to move on to something they can succeed in post-17,” she says.
But the Crafts Council has observed a decline in craft education over the last four to five years, says its research and policy manager, Julia Bennett, especially in disciplines that require space, teaching expertise and pricey equipment or materials. This month will see publication of a Crafts Council study of achievement and participation in crafts over five years, from key stage 4 right up to postgraduate level. Bennett expects it to find more evidence of declining takeup.
Last year, leading figures within the arts world lined up to express dismay at the absence of arts subjects in the EBacc, and research suggested the effects had been swift. An Ipsos Mori study commissioned by the education department (DfE) found that a quarter of schools had withdrawn arts courses for the 2012-13 academic year because of the EBacc. Among those, design or design technology had been withdrawn at 14% of schools, and textiles at 11%. A study by the Cultural Learning Alliance released in September found that since the EBacc was introduced in 2010, the number of arts GCSEs studied by children had fallen by 14%, and suggested the narrowing of options away from the arts affected disadvantaged children more.
Lesley Butterworth, general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, says there is also a serious lack of funding for teacher development in craft education. Some 60% of those coming on her organisation’s courses pay for themselves, she says. The effect is that teachers can’t keep abreast of fast-developing contemporary practice, including the use of digital within craft – as exemplified by self-described “iPotter” Michael Eden, who uses techniques such as 3D printing in his acclaimed pieces.
“There’s a lot of really exciting work going on the moment,” Butterworth says. But she warns that if teachers aren’t able to make pupils aware of it, the field may seem less arresting than others. “If fine-art practices are seen as having digital context and craft doesn’t, then craft may quickly appear a bit fuddy-duddy.”
The replacement of the EBacc with a new performance framework that takes in pupils’ “best eight” subjects will not end the pressure on crafts, she says, given that the eight must include English, maths and three further Ebacc subjects. It’s not just the British craft industry that loses out, but young people themselves, she says: “There’s evidence that haptic skills help young people with other aspects of learning, with wider cognitive development and behavioural issues. It can help them find something they can focus on and be proud of.”
Bennett has little truck with the idea that crafts are something children can learn just as well outside the school week. “The government may say that these skills are the kind of things you can develop in Saturday schools and things like that,” Bennett says, “but if you make ‘making’ skills an add-on, then it requires people to have the resources, the time and support to be able to do that. Then it becomes rooted in inequality.”
The decline sits strangely with the growing popularity of crafts, both in the luxury goods market and at grassroots level, Bennett points out. “It’s a sector that makes a contribution to the economy and has the potential to be a much greater export business as well. There’s a dissonance between the way craft is perceived by the public and amongst adults, and the way we’re investing in supporting schools to keep that happening.”
At Strood, Gunn echoes Bennett’s concerns about GCSE choices and equality of opportunity, especially given the price tag on materials. With so many courses competing for the three slots available within the “best eight” framework outside the compulsory subjects, numbers opting for each may be small. “Schools can’t run expensive courses with only six people on them,” Gunn says. “[Education secretary Michael] Gove’s new agenda will restrict choice … To push parents to pay for those sorts of things means our children from more deprived backgrounds won’t make as much progress as others, because they won’t be able to afford it. It’s about equality.”
“You could have some middle class parents who’ll say ‘yes, here’s £50’ and you’ll have parents who will say ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve got to pay this electricity bill this month’.”
But the answer isn’t as simple as just dropping the Ebacc or including design in it, or even more university sponsorship of academies, Ofield-Kerr says. “Rather … we need much greater recognition by government, and indeed all levels of education, of the importance of material research and making, both in terms of personal development and the maintenance of our longstanding national strength in areas of cultural production.”
Britain’s great strength in the creative industries is no accident, Ofield-Kerr adds: “It’s the product of a very strong history of British design and craft education. You lose that at your peril.
“Without it, there are countries that have absolutely recognised why the UK is so good at creative arts and they’re looking to replicate it themselves. The number of art and design colleges China has opened over the last 10 years has been phenomenal. When production has been so decimated in this country, to put design at risk is just fatal.”