Research finds children's opportunities for making things are being undermined. Helen Hague looks at the debate over practical skills.
For a Government elected on a wave of goodwill from cash-strapped arts organisations, headlines in recent months must make far from comfortable reading.
Hob-nobbing with pop stars in a bid to rebrand Britain as the export-boosting home of "Cool Britannia" has prompted derision from leading designers and arts luminaries. After years of presiding over falling spending, the Arts Council announced a cash cut this year.
Plans to take drama, music and art off the priority list in primary schools to concentrate on the 3Rs have sparked further attacks. Sir Peter Hall accused the Government of "dumbing down Britain" and teachers fear their subjects could be squeezed out of the timetable.
Ken Baines, visiting professor of design and technology at Loughborough University told The TES: "Everything at the moment seems to be tugging towards reducing education to the extremely utilitarian." As an expert in child development, he fears downgrading art in the early years could prove "disastrous".
"For young children, handling materials and using all the senses and being alive to the environment is an absolute basic," he argues. Downgrading making things could also make school "less hospitable" for many pupils, lessening the motivation to learn.
The second phase of research from the Roehampton Institute for the Crafts Council, to be published later this spring, draws on in-depth interviews with pupils and teachers. and puts the spotlight on art and design. This stage builds on the council's national survey published in 1995. Pupils as Makers provides hard evidence of how the scope for "making" is being undercut in schools by a lack of funding, growing class sizes, timetable and league table pressures and the low status craft is afforded by many school managements.
Taken together - with the lack of funds heading the list - the role of hands-on creativity with materials in schools is being undermined. In a representative sample of 20 schools, three had eliminated ceramics from the curriculum, two had not offered it for a few years and in eight more it was now severely restricted.
Professor Rachel Mason, who led the Roehampton research, said: "We are quite clear that children like working with materials - translating ideas into concrete forms and seeing the results. It is an active, positive mode of learning."
In the first phase of the research, based on questionnaires sent to all English and Welsh secondaries, 80 per cent of those responding cited giving pupils a sense of pride and achievement as the key justification for craft on the curriculum.
Follow-on research tries to pin teachers down to just why craft is important. The most frequently-stated answers are: fulfilling a basic human need for tactile experience; and opening the way for an alternative mode of learning. The historical and cultural context of craft is given low priority.
"Making" straddles two curricula - art and design amp; technology. Researchers found pockets of craft excellence in art. But on a national scale, 3-dimensional work in art was found to be in a far from robust shape, its execution potentially costly, its status unclear.
Professor Mason believes all students taking art GCSE at 16 should study a craft - at the moment they can achieve good grades with paintings or drawings alone. In Damp;T, where hands-on making is more to the fore, researchers found teachers were divided. "There is a split down the middle between the old craft, design and technology brigade who were desperate about making disappearing and thought craft was the most important element," he says. "Then there were those who said they never wanted to hear the word craft again. It's old-fashioned. It's sandals and beards."
The latest research is timely on two counts. First, the national curriculum is under review, to be reshaped for 2000 in key stages 1-3 and 200l for key stage 4. Recommendations will be sent to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, next month.
Secondly, the new committee advising the Government on culture and creativity will issue its first report, focusing on schools, by the end of September. Both provide those fearful for the future of craft in schools with opportunities to make their case.
Ken Robinson, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education, is eager to hear from interested parties and has contacted the Crafts Council, Arts Council and Design Council. He says that the relaxation on arts and humanities in primaries is only temporary to concentrate on literacy and numeracy.
He said: "I would be loathe to argue against the importance of making. Equally, I don't think the argument simply amounts to saying we need to promote the cultural industries, though it is a very important strand. One of the reasons the arts and craft have been restricted in schools is that they have not been thought to be relevant to the economic debate."
Opinion, page 20