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Learning to value the craftsperson

22 November 2010

Unlike our continental cousins, we are so casual with the term ‘engineer’ in this country that we ascribe it to those who fix domestic appliances in equal measure to those who design sensitive instrumentation destined for earth orbit. At each end of this scale, the ‘engineer’ can lay claim to a skill or ‘craft’, whether it be an ability to trace faults in electronic circuits or design those circuits in the first instance, and this places obligations on all of us who use or benefit from these skills to make the necessary distinctions between them. But does any form of skills ‘graduation’ downgrade our perceptions of the abilities of those craftsmen and craftswomen with extraordinary and highly valuable skills who sit somewhere in between these extremes?

This was clearly on the mind of John Hayes, minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning, when he delivered his speech to The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts in London at the end of last month. Of course, he has a party political agenda to follow, particularly as he promised in his speech to “create more apprenticeships than modern Britain has ever seen”; but he was genuinely passionate about the role of the craftsperson in our society.

Mr Hayes wants to see apprenticeships abound across the board, not just in the traditional craft sectors but in what he described as the “new crafts”, such as advanced engineering, IT, the creative industries or financial services. Moreover, he feels it’s also about what apprenticeships symbolise: the passing-on of skill from one generation to the next via a process of learning that is just as demanding and praiseworthy as learning from a book in an academic institution.

With the help of sectoral bodies, Mr Hayes hopes it will be possible to seek out new and more effective ways of recognising apprentices’ achievements. It was in an effort to begin to address this disparity that his colleague in government David Willetts announced at the recent Conservative Party conference that apprentices in the construction industry would in future be given the title of ‘technician’. But Mr Hayes wants to go further and reinstate ‘fellows’ and ‘masters’ too. “The aesthetic of craft must be no less seductive that that of academe,” he reminded his audience, surrounded as they were by the work of the eighteenth century craftsmen who designed, built and adorned Number 8 John Adam Street.
Only last week, business secretary Vince Cable was joined by John Hayes to launch the coalition’s strategy for skills – ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’ - and its parallel publication, ‘Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth’. The strategy sets out a vision for reform of the further education and skills system in order to improve the skills of the workforce by “strategic” investment, against the backdrop of the current Spending Review.

“If we are to achieve sustainable growth, nothing is more important than addressing current failings in skills training, and this strategy reflects this government’s determination to do both,” says Dr Cable. “We are not in a position to throw money at the problem, but even against the backdrop of reductions, resource will be found to expand the apprenticeship programme for adults and support more people undertaking an increasingly respected form of vocational training.”

The reform of the skills systems includes an expansion of the numbers of adult apprenticeships available, so that by 2014-15 there will be 75,000 more adults starting than under the previous government’s plans. Some £605 million is to be invested in adult apprenticeships in the 2011-12 financial year, while the apprenticeships package is to be improved, so that level 3 (A Level equivalent) becomes the level to achieve. Clearer progression pathways are planned that will provide fully funded training for young adults aged from 19 to 24 undertaking their first full level 2 (GCSE equivalent) or first level 3 qualification when they do not already have one. There will also be fully funded basic skills courses for individuals who left school without basic reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dr Cable said he would introduce government-backed loans from 2013-14 providing access to finance for learners aged 24 and over undertaking level 3 or higher qualifications. They will not have to make their contribution to costs of the course until they are reaping the benefits of it and earning a decent wage, he added. And the ‘Train to Gain’ scheme goes, to be replaced with funding for work place training prioritised on SMEs to help employers with a small workforce train low-skilled staff.

The CBI’s education and skills director, Susan Anderson welcomed the ambitious targets set for expanding the number of apprenticeships and the government’s recognition that co-funding will be necessary for those SMEs that provide on-the-job training. “It is right that those who have left school without basic literacy or numeracy will continue to have access to state-funded training,” she commented.

But is it not an indictment of our costly education system that this issue concerning the basic skills of school leavers persists to this day? An astonishing half of all companies reporting to the CBI are concerned about the lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills demonstrated by their workforces. Indeed, some twenty per cent of employers are already providing remedial training for school leavers – a function they were not set up to provide in the first place and which they should hardly be expected to pay for, even when times are good. But hey, that’s a subject for another newsletter.

Les Hunt

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