Women who could wood work

20th October 2000 at 01:00
Sue Jones on the Lambeth Women's Woodwork Workshop, whose unique training programme is under threat of closure

"RIGHT you lot! To get on the course, come out to the front and lift this plank above your head as fast as you can. Only the girls - you boys can stay where you are."

Back in the 1980s, when this comment was not unusual, many carpentry and joinery instructors and lecturers were still struggling with the concept of equal opportunity. Even now, women can find such workshops unfriendly and unsupportive and there is still a demand for women-only courses.

The Lambeth Women's Workshop sent out five hundred party invitations to past students and staff to celebrate its twentieth anniversary last Saturday (Oct 6). But the Workshop faces challenges.

It was born when battered women in a refuge had to earn more than low-paid "women's work". What about a skilled trade like carpentry?

With help from professional and trades women, and a government grant for inner-city projects, they set up in part of a 1930s munitions factory that had become an industrial estate. The workshop attracted a wide social mix, including French, German and Hungarian women who could not get the training at home.

They needed skilled female instructors. In the 1970s, Steph Bullock decided to take advantage of equal opportunities legislation to insist on doing woodwork at her school in Suffolk.

Despite initial opposition, her teacher was supportive and she got good grades. Then came the 45 job applications. "I wish I'd kept the rejection letters. They were all about not having women's toilets and telling me that I'd get dirty." She eventually got a job making toys through a youth opportunities scheme, which led to a job as a cabinet maker, and then to a joinery firm.

Then an advert in feminist magazine Spare Rib led her to London and an instructor's job at the Lambeth Women's Workshop.

The project flourished and woodwork was soon supplemented by spirited discussion. Eighty-three year old "Elsie" was happy to dispel the myth that all wartime brief encounters were of the genteel, Celia Johnson variety; and graduates, low achievers, lesbians and punks broadened their social knowledge with debate on feminism and their own lifestyles.

"Women left the workshop feeling a whole lot better about themselves," says Majella Williams, once a workshop student, now fundraiser and development officer.

They can also leave with an national vocational qualification level 1 in Wood Occupations and a bag of tools worth pound;300. The main aim is to enable women to do things for themselves and earn a living, but there is still prejudice in the construction industry, and many plan to be self-employed.

As well as training, the Workshop provides support. After an initial evaluation, students can be helped with literacy and numeracy if necessary, either on the course or at Lambeth College. There is also money for fares, for childcare for the under-fives and some for after-school clubs.

But this can only be paid to registered child minders who Lambeth College is sure will declare it on their tax returns. And there are too few such minders willng to take on children from "problem" families. Workshop staff support MP Harriet Harman's efforts to extend payments to friends and family who mind children.

The course is open to unemployed women aged from 16 to 60 who want to work in the industry. The NVQ, validated by the construction industry training board, begins with using hand tools and continues with eight modules in skills such as hanging doors and making window frames.

The module students feel most apprehensive about is team leadership. Each student has to be foreperson for a week, taking deliveries, supervising clearing up and checking health and safety. As many of them came to the workshop too shy to ask for basic help, taking charge signals a major change.

The confidence students gain from the course opens up new challenges and opportunities. Many go onto college courses, some into employment and others onto new relationships. If a partner can't cope with a woman with a chisel, then the partner may have to go.

One such woman is Majella Williams, who married at 18, had three children and divorced at 23. She joined the course because she needed practical skills, such as putting up shelves and changing plugs, to run her home alone. An interest in health and safety led to an access course, which led to work with the unemployed and finally back to the Workshop as a member of staff.

Now she feels capable of sitting on local committees and networking with charities, other projects and local government services. She has the confidence to argue the case for women who are trying to get back to work but need help with fares, clothes, child care, coming off benefits and getting to grips with the tax system.

And her career development won't stop there. Seeing that so many students needed personal help before they could start woodwork, she is taking a counselling course. "It's not really about carpentry and joinery any more. It's about what service we're providing, and to whom."

When unemployment was high in the 1980s the Workshop attracted a wide range of people. Now that the jobless numbers are low, the project increasingly takes referrals from the social and probation services. The factory's 2,000 square feet of space is no longer enough.

The urgent need is for more office space for the expanding paperwork and private space for counselling.

Social complexities are mirrored in varied funding criteria. As a franchise of Lambeth College, they receive funding from the Further Education Funding Council, soon to be replaced by the Learning and Skills Council. The grant from Lambeth Council has to fulfil local government 'best value' criteria, or a conveyor belt system of maximum students processed in the minimum time. Different again, but favoured by the Workshop staff, is the European Social Fund grant, which is based on what you can do for the individual client.

But all those grants depend on the clients' attendance. And increasingly the clients are people whose problems make it hard for them to attend regularly.

Projects like the Lambeth Women's Workshop could be threatened because they deal with the people who need them most.

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