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  • Lettercutter and Stonemason Thomas Appleton in his studio (detail). Photo: Sophie Mutevelian

Making a manifesto

The executive director of the Crafts Council on why this is a vital moment for crafts

It’s timely that a section of this 250th issue of the magazine is devoted to Moments That Changed Craft, because I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that we stand at a turning point for the field.

In the past few months I’ve been to a pair of events that extolled the virtues of British creativity and, importantly, that carried a significant contribution from the nation’s makers. The GREAT Festival of Creativity, a government-backed initiative to export the best of the nation’s creativity abroad, held in Istanbul, included talks from the likes of shoemaker James Ducker of carréducker, textile artist Rosalind Wyatt, and Central St Martin’s Carole Collet, while the Crafts Council was one of several organisations that exhibited at the launch of Create UK designed to highlight the role of the UK’s creative industries as an economic force. Held in the UK offices of Facebook, the launch featured speeches from Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Dr Vince Cable and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Sajid Javid, and both re-emphasised the importance of this burgeoning sector to the UK’s economy.

The statistics are compelling: as the industry co-chair of the Creative Industries Council and vice president EMEA of Facebook Nicola Mendelsohn pointed out in her introduction, the sector is growing faster than any other in the nation, generating £71.4bn GVA in 2012. At a time when our financial services and manufacturing industries are recalibrating after the 2008 economic collapse, it’s something of which we should all be proud.

But a contradiction has emerged in government policy over recent years. While the departments of Business and Culture have been happy to spread the good news of the sector’s success, the department of Education has narrowed the curriculum, keen to emphasise traditional academic subjects over the arts and potentially smothering a new generation of creatives in their formative years. Our report, Studying Craft: trends in craft education and training, revealed an alarming 19 percent decline in the number of pupils enrolling on craft-related design and technology courses at GCSE level between 2007-09 and 2010-11. While numbers in higher education have held up this ignores a higher influx of overseas students, effectively masking a drop in the number of domicile students wanting to take places. And many parents still don’t see the possibilities for their children to forge a successful and fulfilling career with a background in an arts or making-based subject.

Student participating in the Crafts Council's Firing Up scheme. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian
Important in and of itself, a craft education isn’t just about creating beautiful objects. It has a vital role to play in wider industry, helps with problem-solving (as Matthew Crawford illustrated in his best-seller The Case for Working with Your Hands), and contributes to general cognitive development. It helps students see that there is more than one way to learn, and provides a sense of agency and empowerment. As the historian and master of Wellington College Dr Anthony Seldon argued in the Evening Standard recently: ‘All young people need an excellent grounding in the arts, creativity and sport.’ Yet if this decline continues then there is no question that the future of British craft will be in real jeopardy. And with it the material skills and expertise required by the film industry, engineers, designers, architects and surgeons.

So what is the Crafts Council proposing to do? Since the report was published we’ve held meetings across the country to hear the ideas, responses and experiences of the making community. We’ve also set up focus groups and sent out a consultation questionnaire. We have launched a draft version of our education manifesto, which is being sent out to our network to garner support before the finished article is launched at an event at the House of Commons on 10 November, hosted by the Shadow Secretary of State for Education Tristram Hunt, and including a speech by Edmund de Waal.

To effect real change we need to build a broad-based coalition of partners and supporters who between them can impress upon the government the importance of making in education at all levels, from primary school through to apprenticeships – and to emphasise the latter, the Craft Apprenticeship Trailblazer is launched at the same time, aiming to set a new world class apprenticeship standard for craft.

Jeweller Yen Duong in her studio (detail). Photo: Sophie Mutevelian

Michael Gove and the Department of Education have been subjects of much debate both in the teaching profession and throughout the media since the formation of the Coalition government four years ago, not to mention since the reshuffle, but it’s important to note that we’re not scoring political points – this launch will be cross-party. And it is possible to shift policy as the technology industry proved, when a panel of experts – including representatives from Google and Microsoft – persuaded the government to include Computer Science in the English Baccalaureate for secondary school league tables. But we need your support to make change happen.