The marginalisation of making means students and society are both losing out, says John Eggleston
Making things is big business in Britain. Quite apart from its obvious role in industry, it is one of our biggest recreational activities.
There are big DIY stores in almost every town, craft books and magazines are a growth industry and the demand for all manner of classes from wood turning to quilting rises steadily.
Yet making things in schools is declining. Design and technology, the subject that has replaced crafts, is only partly a making subject. It has now been down-graded in primary schools, and even in secondary schools the subject only has a secure existence in the first two years. Much of this time is devoted to design and paper projects rather than the real making that was once of the unmissable experiences of the secondary curriculum. Sadly, making is melting away in schools.
The Crafts Council, which is devoted to the encouragement of crafts at all levels, views this trend with dismay. Despite its limited resources, the council has established a research initiative to map out the picture in schools and universities, workplaces and the community, and to explore the range of learning that making delivers.
The objective of the Learning Through Making project was simple - to assemble accurate, persuasive information that would encourage educators, industrialists and governments to put making higher up on their agendas.
A team from Sheffield Hallam University is focusing on the way craft education is being offered by universities and its relevance to modern post-industrial society, particularly in identifying the life skills delivered by crafts and their marketability.
A team from Middlesex University is investigating the learning taking place in schools and the way it is evaluated in schools, industry and the wider society.
A third team, from Loughborough University, is developing an overview of the social and economic nature of learning delivered by making, throughout the education system. Their work has involved interviews with crafts people, observations of primary school children and a wide range of adult craft activities.
The three teams will complete their work by late spring and the Crafts Council will publish the results later this year. But it is already clear that making offers a rich learning experience and that many students are able to achieve a far higher level of success as a result. As one secondary school pupil put it, "I think better when I am making it".
Making also seems to facilitate other learning, notably in the subjects the Government considers to be of transcendental importance: language, maths, science and information and communications technology.
The ease with which young people can read practical instruction manuals that require a reading age far in excess of their years is well known. Such evidence may well cause government to think long and hard about its tunnel vision on curriculum subjects.
There may be other disconcerting messages for government. While there is predictable enthusiasm for learning through making from employers, this is often generalised and unfocused and seldom formulated into a coherent recruitment policy.
In particular the ability to turn creative ideas into made products is often unrecognised and unsought - a weakness that continues to allow yet more British initiatives, both small and large, to go elsewhere for development and production.
Even more interesting is the public perception of making, not as an occupational asset, but rather as a leisure activity unrelated to work and an activity from which to escape the tedium of employment.
But perhaps the most significant finding coming through is the widespread initial unemployment of crafts graduates who leave university not for work but for welfare.
Indeed to have any future as a maker, many crafts graduates must depend on welfare until eventually they achieve standing and recognition. Many see welfare not as social security but state patronage.
The concept of higher education to welfare is, however, breathtakingly different from the government's proclaimed strategy of welfare to work.
Reassuringly, Sheffield's longitudinal studies show that the unemployment of craft graduates is often short term. After building a portfolio of work many do use their skills in a wide range of cultural and manufacturing industries.
By publishing results like this the Crafts Council will help expose the confused view of learning through making that exists in our educational system. It may help to halt the erosion of crafts activity in schools and illuminate the forthcoming review of the national curriculum.
Above all, it may bring about a more coherent relationship between making, work and leisure in modern society. It may even help government to understand the fundamental relationship between making and living that is at the heart of the modern entrepreneurial society it so fervently seeks to further.
John Eggleston is a member of the steering committee of the Learning Through Making project