“The craft so long to learn: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain” – by John Hayes MP

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce is a body founded on the ideal of progress, exemplified in James Barry’s series of paintings in the Great Hall. The RSA is also a body that has, right from the start, rejected artificial distinctions between art and craft, while upholding the particular value of each.

Over more than 250 years, from mounting Britain’s first contemporary art show to organising the Great Exhibition, the event in our history that, more than any other, astonished the world with the beauty of British craftsmanship, the RSA has insisted that art needs craft, and vice versa. And it continues to remind us the joylessness of attempting to separate one from the other. Indeed, the more pleasure we take in our work, manual or mental, the more of ourselves we invest in it, the more we to get from it in return, financially perhaps, but most importantly aesthetically. What we do is what we are.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending a speech by Michael Gove, who spoke persuasively about the urgency of reforming and revaluing practical education in this country, starting in schools. For decades practical learning for children has been seen by the educational establishment as a poor second-best to academic study. In recent times, lip-service has been paid to it with the creation of new school qualifications which seem useful but too often prove to be anything but when a youngster goes from school into the harsher realities of the job market.

The growing availability of apprenticeships for young people has been of much more value, but again, the route towards high-level skills to which they point has all too frequently stopped short, at Level 2, rather than taking a person forward to Level 3 and beyond. Of course, it’s a Level 3 that qualifications really start to have a big effect on a person’s future prospects and earning potential.

I went from school to university and from there into a job. For people of my generation, this was the modern equivalent of the Roman cursus honorum. And to an extent it still is, even though over the last three years graduates in some subjects perceived by employers as soft have felt the chill blast of recession.

I don’t believe, as some seem to, that Britain, once the workshop of the world, is doomed to dwindle to a race of pseudo celebrities and merchant bankers. On the contrary, I believe that it is British manufacturing and the practical skills that underpin it that must lead us into renewed economic growth.

For decades, people have been calling for greater parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. Those calls have invariably fallen on deaf ears. Instead, we’ve seen a dilution of both. Too many things that are fundamentally practical have been given an academic veneer. Not because it’s needed to produce a better craftsman, but simply because it seems to legitimise craft for those who are fundamentally insecure about practical learning.

Ironically, many such people have done academic study no favours. But regardless, the academic route continues to enjoy greater esteem. Parents and grandparents will proudly display photographs of their offspring in graduation garb, whatever has been studied, wherever. Such is the power of the degree brand. The Bachelor-Master-Doctor structure is relatively familiar to most people. And, even in an age of 45 per cent participation, they retain an aura of intellectual and social exclusivity.

But the same can be said of few practical qualifications, because many come and go with alarming frequency and certainly before even employers in the sector concerned can work out exactly what they mean. I think it impoverishes our culture that even apprenticeships, which have been around as a form of training for at least twice as long as universities, do not confer a particular title.

That’s just one reason of many that things need to change. People speak of the intellectual beauty of a mathematical theorem. But there is beauty, too, in the economy and certainty of movement of a master craftsmen. I believe that both kinds of beauty must be recognised on their own terms. And that implies not that the stock of academe must fall, but that the stock of craft must rise.

Change of the kind I seek would colour our national life in the three ways. The first is economic. The comparative orthodox esteem in which vocational and academic qualifications seems to have relatively little to do with earning potential. Indeed, at times like these with many traditional graduate recruiters cutting back, a practical skill may often be more marketable.

The essence of the value of a skill lies in the fact that not everyone has it, assuming a skill has a market value. The higher and more sophisticated the skill, the more value it is likely to add to a product. As Lord Leitch and others have argued, the higher the skills levels available in an economy, the more they add to the value of products and services, the more profitable the economy as a whole is likely to become, the more jobs it will support and the more business we will win from other countries. Raising skills levels brings social as well as economic benefits, like better public health, lower crime-rates and more intensive engagement by individuals in the sorts of voluntary and community activities that fuel the common good and power the national interest.

The second area where elevating the status of craft would bring benefits is social. Sadly few these days are described – or describe themselves – as a master-craftsman. In part, that is the consequence of social change. Within living memory, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker enjoyed significant social status, alongside the bank manager, the lawyer and the schoolteacher.

These days, in most of Britain, the hard-won skill of individuals has been subsumed by brutal, impersonal ubiquity. Butchers, bakers and others reduced to anonymous shop assistants in soulless megastores. But history shows us that there is an alternative. When industrialisation was reaching its zenith here, it provoked a reaction which eventually became known as the Arts and Crafts movement. This movement, too, recognised the unbreakable link between satisfaction in work and quality of life. Its proponents considered the dehumanising effects of mass production in their own time and sought to recreate what they saw as a happier period for working people. A period when their skills were recognised, valued and freed to produce great art.

The world that past fiction characteristics is one in which membership of a craft guild, and consequently the skills required to qualify, was something to which ordinary people aspired. It’s a world in which bakers and builders are proud to be what they are, and to be admired as such by others. And it’s a world in which people can realise the satisfaction that practicing a skill of proficiently can give. In our age that satisfaction can, in principle, be available to anyone. It should be available to more.

The benefits to individuals of acquiring new skills, whether for work or for private satisfaction, are reflected throughout society. I certainly don’t mean to idealise hard work. But neither should we underestimate the dignity of labour – the satisfaction of a job well done. For to do so is to undervalue those who labour. It’s a dignity we must rejuvenate, because many, though not all, practical skills are undervalued in our society.

Yet interestingly that does not mean that, as a society, we necessarily look down on skill. After all the 150 applicants for each BT apprenticeship place certainly don’t. And think of the popular fascination with skills of celebrity chefs and professional dancers or the popularity of T.V and radio shows about architecture, engineering or fashion design. The instinctive value we feel for craft must be reflected by our education system.

The third area where we need change is cultural. The men who built and beautified the cathedrals were not by and large academic. Even now, they challenge our prejudices about what culture is and who creates it. The same could be said of many of the great artists. Their art and their craft beautifies the world still. The craftsmen who built Georgian and, especially, Victorian London were both numerous and anonymous. But they, too, created an environment where the effects of craft enriched ordinary people’s lives. All that we build should add quality, as the Victorians knew. That celebration of life in a Victorian terraced house, Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed, celebrated something else, too. The bonds of neighbourliness, friendship and shared experience that held working-class communities together. The social glue that helped them to weather hard times in the 1920s and 1930s.

Craft skill also beautified our public spaces. Of course, much of that beauty has been swept away, partly by the Luftwaffe, but mainly by much more ruthless urban planners. And our lives are poorer for it.

So let one example stand for all. The Euston Road has its brighter points. Above all, the high Victorian fantasy of St Pancras, itself so nearly lost to the wrecker’s ball. It also has its low points. Notably leaking warehouse set amid the crumbling concrete that is Euston Station. But it wasn’t always thus. The gaping entrance to the station and its depressing bus station was once guarded by a vast Doric arch, built of stone in 1837. Its size and neoclassical simplicity were a powerful symbol of national confidence at the dawn of the railway age and the start of Queen Victoria’s reign.

A Conservative Government approved its demolition in 1961. The stones which had brought pleasure to the lives of millions were taken away and dumped in a river. Those who ordered that deed should never be forgiven because it wasn’t just a symptom of environmental brutalism, it was a symptom of post-war contempt for the skills and craftsmanship of the people who built it. In my view, the skills of a bricklayer are in no way less admirable and certainly no less hard-won than those of a stockbroker. And admired is what they should be. For each feel value, all feel valued.

When we look at something beautiful, it’s not just the object that we admire, but the skill that went into producing it. That’s why Maclise’s fresco of The Death of Nelson will always be more admired than Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

My point is that admiration for skill, even when it doesn’t involve production of an object, is an integral part of our culture. I remember watching Pele’s outrageous dummy at the 1970 world cup on television. The next day all that any of my schoolmates or I wanted to do in the playground was to replicate it. It didn’t matter that Pele didn’t score. It was his skill and the vision that fired our imaginations.

The sort of revaluation I’m calling for won’t be easily accomplished. But I think there is a general recognition right across the spectrum of political and educational opinion that one is needed.

So what can we do? There are five things I’d like to suggest.

The first is to continue and intensify our efforts to re-establish apprenticeship as the primary form of practical training. We will create more apprenticeships than modern Britain has ever seen. And not just in the traditional craft sectors but in the new crafts too – in advanced engineering; IT; the creative industries or financial services.

It’s not just that apprenticeships works – though they do. And it’s not just that apprenticeship is probably the most widely-recognised brand in the skills shop-window – although it is. It’s also about what apprenticeships symbolise. The passing-on of skill from one generation to the next and the proof that this offers that learning by doing is just as demanding and praiseworthy as learning from a book.

As I said earlier, we need to seek out new and more effective ways of recognising apprentices’ achievements. It was in an effort to begin to address that disparity that my colleague David Willetts recently announced that apprentices in the construction industry would in future be given the title of “technician”.

But we will go further; I plan to reinstate fellows and masters too. The aesthetic of craft must be no less seductive that that of academe. With the number of apprentices set to rise by 75,000 during this Parliament, we will extend that sort of thinking to trainee craftsmen across sectors. This will not only offer the emblems of achievement to individuals, but also provide business with important commercial advantages. Firms that invest in training deserve recognition and will be able to use the achievements gained by their staff as marketing tools.

Second, we must re-evaluate and indeed redefine what a sectoral approach means. It’s been clear since even before guilds and livery companies existed that different sectors require specific skills, and that it therefore makes sense for sectoral bodies to be closely involved in designing training and qualifications and in setting standards.

In some sectors, that link has been obscured, although it remains clear in others. The Goldsmiths and Fishmongers Companies are good examples of that, as indeed is the Royal College of Surgeons, which presides over the highest-stakes practical skill of them all. Though my discussions with City and Guilds, I know that the livery companies are keen to build on the good work they already do. And there is also, I think, an opportunity for the sector skills councils to grasp. 

“Sector skills council”; it is hardly a label to stiffen the sinew and summon up the blood.  And that is a symptom of a deeper problem. Here, too, we have become stuck in a dreary technocratic language which limits imagination and inspiration. I want SSCs to dare to rise to the challenge of going beyond the strictly utilitarian, of becoming guilds for the twenty first century, creating a sense of pride in modern occupations, and giving individual workers a sense of worth and purposeful pride.

Third, we must not forget the role that informal learning also plays in teaching skills. Acquiring skills make our lives, not necessarily wealthier, but definitely fuller. It raises our self-esteem and often also the esteem in which others hold us.

The desire for skills can be accompanied by frustration if there is no clear way in which to gain them. But if they are available, what a difference they can make to individuals and communities.

What a force for social cohesion, and for every kind of practical skill, the formidable ladies of the Women’s Institute remain. What an introduction to manual skill the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides have given to millions of children. What pleasure it can give to the whole community to see the local gardening club come together once a year to pit their blooms and brassicas against one another. Show me a society where everyone has the opportunity and desire to seek out new knowledge and new skills and I’ll show you a society that really deserves to be called “bigger”.

My fourth point follows on from the previous three. We must do much more to facilitate progression. Under the last Government, we heard a great deal about creating ladders of learning. But their approach was fundamentally flawed because it was based on identifying problems and then trying to nail a few more rungs on the ladder to compensate.

In fact, what the learner got was not so much one ladder as a game of snakes and ladders.

Our task must therefore be to break down the barriers to progression that have been progressively erected, and to reject artificial distinctions wherever we find them. We must also make the barrier between HE and FE more permeable. If we want learning to be really lifelong, the road for any individual from basic skills to higher learning – not necessarily provided in higher education – must be as smooth as we can make it.

My fifth point is about Further Education providers. FE Colleges are the great unheralded triumph of our education system. But their capacity to innovate has been limited by the target driven, bureaucratic, micro-management which characterised the last Government’s approach to skills.

This Government could not be more different. We will free colleges to innovate and excel. In fact we have already begun rolling back the stifling blanket of red tape and regulation and we will go further. Our mission is to free colleges to be more responsive to learner choice and employer demands. This is vital to build provision sufficiently nimble to respond to dynamic demand. But the often understated product of the extra discretion that comes with freedoms will be to drive up the status of newly empowered FE Colleges, their teachers and learners.

I look back to the Englishmen who first raised the standard of craft skill as a force in the modern world – to Morris and Ruskin, Rossetti and Burne-Jones – and I think it’s high time to create a new aesthetics of craft, indeed, a new Arts and Crafts movement, for Britain in the 21st century. That won’t be done overnight. But we are making a start.

I am considering backing high quality in the craft traditions by lending the Government’s support to a new award for excellence in the crafts. Details are at an early stage, but I think it is right that excellence should be rewarded and the Government will work over the next few months with those working to support the crafts, including the various charities under the Patronage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, to encourage and reward excellence in this area.

Craft is about new industries too. It’s about being a software designer, a network engineer or an aeronautical engineer; craft is as much about learning to be a film technician as furniture maker; as much about learning to be a fashion designer as a fishmonger. I want to show that our society will benefit greatly when those that make policy understand what popular culture has always known – that skill, craft and dexterity give our lives meaning and value.

Craft should be honoured and those who master it revered. So while we work to encourage the learning of practical skills, we must also work to build demand for and recognition of them. Craft to feed the common good, skills to serve national interest.

Ours will be – must be – the age of the craftsman

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