Jill Rutter, Head of Programme and Policy, Learning and Work Institute
Five hundred years ago all the material objects around us were handmade by craftsmen and craftswomen. The industrial revolution brought us the power loom and factory ceramics. Household goods became more affordable, but we have also lost many of the skills of making and mending: nearly a quarter of adults can’t sew on a button. But we are seeing a resurgence in craft, part driven by more leisure time and the popularity of Sewing Bee and Pottery Throwdown on the television. Stuck at home, it was reported that one million people took up knitting during the pandemic.
We may be lucky enough to learn carpentry or to sew and knit by our parents or are taught these skills at school. Artists and crafts people may also teach in their studios and people may also learn in courses offered by independent providers; in London we are lucky to have the Kiln Rooms, Sew it with Love and the Goodlife Centre.
But many people learn craft skills by local authority adult education services or at further education colleges. Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal are two of the UK’s most well-known ceramic artists whose first lessons were at evening classes in adult education centres. But not everyone gets these opportunities and there are inequalities in people’s access to craft courses in adult and further education.
The adult education budget has halved since 2010. The closure of two large London-based ceramics departments prompted me to map ceramics teaching in adult and further education in 2015. This showed a huge north-south divide in teaching. In the 2015-15 academic year there was over 19,000 hours of ceramics teaching in London (2.94 hours per 1,000 population) and 11,000 hours in the south east (1.62 hours per 1,000 population), but just 0.35 hours per 1,000 people in the north east and 0.58 hours in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Eight years on, what had changed? There has been a large growth in the independent learning sector, with almost all cities now home such ventures. There is also much more teaching available online, either on free-to-use sites such as YouTube or paid-for courses that are offered online. Another change over the last eight years is a much greater use made of craft to boost wellbeing and social connection, with the growth of the men’s shed movement, more knitting groups, as well as social prescribing into craft. More commercial makers are also taking on apprentices, although there are reports of some of them struggling to find recruits. But these positive developments cannot disguise the gradual loss of crafts in local authority adult education services, and a loss of students too.
The Department for Education monitors adult learner numbers in England. Most craft courses fall under the category of ‘personal and community development learning’ along with subjects such as health and fitness, cookery and modern languages. Almost all of these students will be attending courses run by local authority adult education services or further education colleges. In the 2017-18 academic year there were 327,970 students on personal and community development learning courses in England. While numbers dropped during Covid-19, they have still not picked up, with just 209,110 learners enrolled in 2022-23. The statistics also show gender and geographic divides. Those enrolled on personal and community development courses are disproportionally female, London-based and over 50; in 2022-23 just 26% of people on these courses were male.
An examination of adult education service and college prospectuses shows the extent to which local authority adult education services and with this craft teaching have been run down. I looked at all adult education service and further education college prospectuses from the perspective of the ‘leisure’ and ‘wellbeing’ courses they were offering in subject areas such as fine art, ceramics, glass and mosaic, heritage crafts, jewelry and silversmithing, knitting and crochet, sewing and textiles and wood and upholstery. It is a very mixed picture. There are local authorities and colleges where craft has been nurtured and their provision really stands out, with Bristol, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Gateshead adult education services and colleges such as Richmond and Hillcroft College, City Lit, Morley College and WM College some of the standouts. Some of the former adult education services where craft was thriving have recently become independent trusts or colleges and are no longer under local authority control.
But craft deserts exist alongside thriving provision, with 36 local authorities in England having little or no craft provision in their adult education services or colleges, and little or none in easy reach in neighbouring local authorities. While ceramics, sewing and textiles courses are available in many locations, few local authority adult education services or colleges offer them.
With growing numbers of independent providers, one might argue that the loss of craft provision in local authority services and colleges does not matter. But there is an economic and social case to be made maintaining public provision. The business model of adult education services and colleges enables them subsidise courses for disadvantaged groups such as the unemployed or those with health conditions and disabilities. While a few larger independent learning providers offer a range of courses and progression routes, there are usually opportunities to broaden and improve skills in adult and further education provision. Courses for people with severe mental health conditions and learning disabilities is almost always located in the public provision.
Independent and public providers need to find better ways to work together. Creativity and craft can play a role in place-making and culture-led regeneration, with Blackburn, Derby, Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland examples of towns and cities that have incorporated craft in their plans to level up. For some, craft is their source of income. Craft can bring people from different backgrounds together to learn and make. As our population ages, craft has a role to play in boosting our cognitive skills in old age. Craft teaches us behaviours and values such as persistence, problem-solving, planning and humility in the face of failure. Making a dress, a pot, or a table engenders pride and boosts creative thinking and well-being.
The sociologist Richard Sennett said that there is a craftsman in all of us, yet today many people don’t get the opportunities to learn a craft. Many of the benefits associated with making things won’t be realised if disadvantaged and low-income groups – and men – don’t have the chance to take part in learning. It’s time to make a stronger case for craft and to make sure that all sections of society have the opportunities to create.
Jill Rutter is Head of Policy and Programme at L&W and in her spare time makes pots, dyes fabric and sews.