When the educational belt is tightened, the arts in the curriculum invariably fall into the category of "desirable but not essential". No one disputes the importance of basic skills, but well-meaning expediency almost inevitably seems to take priority over deeper cultural and humanistic values.
To help redress this situation, Education Secretary David Blunkett has set up a think-tank - chaired by Professor Ken Robinson of Warwick University (see Platform, TES, March 13), to capitalise on creative thinking and skills in all aspects of education and training. Key questions which need to be addressed are: what should be taught and learned, how and for what purpose?
These issues have been highlighted by two national surveys carried out by Professor Rachel Mason and researchers at the Roehampton Institute on behalf of the Crafts Council. Craft, of course, is not a curriculum subject and so the surveys addressed "making activities" in the art and design and technology subjects.
These surveys highlight difficulties of implementing these areas in schools. They looked at the experience and attitudes of teachers and pupils at key stages 3 and 4 towards craft in a sample of schools and raise some very serious questions about practical subjects in schools in terms of resources, timetabling, curriculum content and teacher training.
The reports do not make for comfortable reading. While they suggest that pupils enjoy making things, they rarely get the opportunity to finish the work they are doing, mainly because of the ways school timetables are organised.
Teachers do what they can and give up breaks, lunch times and even weekends to give the pupils more time in the workshops and studios. A major problem for most teachers is a lack of resources and many spend a lot of time getting waste materials from shops and factories and scavenging through skips. Workshop equipment in many schools is very old, poorly maintained and, in some cases, unusable. The teachers expressed growing concerns about the effects of decreasing budgets and increasing class sizes.
Few pupils were able to relate the work they did in schools to the work of professional crafts people and, indeed, many pupils thought professional craft work was part of the tourist industry. This was not surprising because, for a variety of reasons, many teachers find it difficult either to arrange for crafts people to work in schools or to organise pupils' visits to museums, galleries or workshops.
The only involvement with making things out-of-school for many pupils is helping parents in DIY activities, such as putting up shelves or making clothes.
Pupils who did make things at home, such as model-making from kits, did so mainly because of the influence of someone else in the family rather than as an outcome or extension of work done in school.
Most teachers were very positive about the value of craft in education, although they saw it almost exclusively as a practical, hands-on activity and did not pay much attention to putting it into its cultural or historical context. Many felt that the hands-on approach fulfilled a basic human need and that involvement in the making process demonstrated knowledge and understanding in tangible form.
Most teachers argued that the national curriculum had decreased opportunities for craft activities and thought that the emphasis on the design process and theory as well as the promotion of cardboard technology and multimedia work had impinged on the time needed for practical work.
Many teachers regretted the lack of opportunities for staff development and thought that they could be better prepared and have a wider range of knowledge and practical skills. To offset this rather bleak picture, the surveys identified some schools in which craft work was thriving -but these were the exceptions rather than the rule.
What can be expected of the schools in relation to the teaching of the arts, crafts and design and how does this relate to lifelong learning in an increasingly technologically-oriented society?
Secondary schools are not vocational schools or apprenticeship schemes and so cannot be expected to develop high levels of practical skill in young people.
Nevertheless, schools might be expected to provide pupils with the experiences to develop a real love for making things , as well as to develop an understanding of materials and the ways they can be fashioned.
They might also be expected to provide opportunities for pupils to develop and exercise creative imagination and acquire an informed, critical sensitivity to the world around them.
The provision of these experiences in school is necessary if long-standing traditions of making, which underpin so many aspects of contemporary society, are to be nurtured and if encounters with the brilliance of human achievements in things made are to be enjoyed. The theoretical arguments are well established; the problem that now needs to be addressed is how they can be translated more realistically into purposeful practice.
Brian Allison is emeritus professor of education at De Montfort University, Leicester