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Studying Craft 16 Findings: Community Learning

Community learning is a rich resource for introducing people to craft. It helps to reconnect people of a range of ages and backgrounds with learning, prepare for more formal courses or follow an interest, often encouraging amateur engagement with craft. Classes take place in a number of settings and are usually provided by local authorities and FE colleges. Community learning remains a vital resource, particular in the majority of areas where social enterprises and other forms of maker space haven’t filled a gap.

Local budgets have been cut over the years causing fluctuations in the number of learners, but overall numbers have grown by 28% since 2007/08, with 193,870 people studying craft in 2014/15 (but lower than the peak of 235,000 learners in 2008/09). Where student numbers have fallen, the greatest declines were seen in the east of England and the north west (see tab S16 in our data workbook).

The majority of learners (99%) are in ‘core’ craft courses (what we defined in our study as ‘design-and-make courses through which makers might develop core knowledge/practice, and/or courses which might offer routes into the craft sector’). It’s heartening to see so many people interested in craft – perhaps we need to engage them in inspiring the young people who are being turned away from Design & Technology GCSE (a 41% decline in students between 2007/08 and 20014/15 – see our blog on the findings)!

Unsurprisingly perhaps, around 60% of participants are over the age of 50 and over 80% are women. It’s possible that some may be seeking to supplement their income or to help bridge the period between paid work and a state pension, although we have no evidence on this point. Since 2008/08, the number of BAME learners has increased by 13% to 23,700, forming 12% of all learners.

It’s of some concern to see how the length of courses is reducing: the number of courses with less than 50 guided learning hours has grown rapidly since 2007/08, now making up over a third (38%) of all courses compared with just 8% in 2007/08. Meanwhile, the courses with more than 300 guided learning hours have grown far more slowly and now make up only 15% of all courses compared with 45% in 2007/08. Average guided learning hours per course have declined in all craft disciplines, with the exception of woodcrafts. Textiles has shown the most rapid decline, with the average courses in 2007/08 being almost three times as long in 2007/08 compared with 2014/15.

In contrast to cuts in community learning ceramics classes in many areas (see research by Jill Rutter, featured in our January 2016 policy brief) it’s great to hear about the long history of classes and development of techniques in our case study from Bensham Grove in Gateshead.

Julia Bennett, Head of Research and Policy

NCFE Level 2 Ceramics at Bensham Grove - Christine Constant

Bensham Grove is a Community Learning Centre which offers Adult Education provision across many different (predominantly Arts & Crafts) subjects.

The well–resourced Pottery Studio is housed in a separate, dedicated building where classes have been running for 29 years. There are 4 electric kilns which are fired across both Earthenware and Stoneware temperatures. The course was taught by Christine Constant, also a practicing maker.

The cohort of 10, (predominantly women), had an age range of 30 – 80 years.

As the learners already had a good working knowledge and reasonable skill level in ceramics due to successful completion of the level 1 course, the level 2 core brief had an emphasis on context, rather than technique.

The learners were asked to make work in response to a chosen place or event. They could decide both the construction techniques and surface approaches to use, and were encouraged to make choices to fit to their subject that would potentially lead them to experiment with new processes, materials and techniques.

After an initial period gathering visual research material, the learners started to define what they wanted to make and experiment with forms and surfaces.  As they discovered techniques from their contextual research, specific demonstrations were incorporated to the course structure.

This project resulted in a wide variety of responses, eg:

Ceramic pots for a school classroom, that would offer a different haptic experience for the children in contrast to the smooth, primary-coloured plastic that dominated their learning environment.
A series of carved plaques that illustrated the plight of Syrian refugees.
An assemblage of memories related to a favourite childhood haunt.

During the 30 week course, in addition to 1:1 tutorials, the learners also engaged in termly group reviews which gave them an opportunity to appraise their work in progress.  Although this practice can be quite daunting for some, the learning rewards are huge: pausing to stop and look at their work and articulate their pathway for others crucially embeds reflective practice. The peer audience gave salient, positive and encouraging feedback. This process was repeated at the end of the course when the completed work was displayed and assisted in the learner’s own evaluation of their work.

Mary Whitby with 'Faceted Column' 2016. Photo Christine Constant

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