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Posted 26.11.13

Education’s Question Time

Originally published in Crafts Magazine

You’d think art schools weren’t short on opinion on any subject, but for years they have by and large remained eerily silent  on issues urgent and fundamental to the art school ethos. Questions such as the radical demise of making, and of the crafts, throughout UK education; the progressive marginalisation of creative arts subjects in our school curriculum; or the newly fashionable neo-apartheid of ‘academic’ versus ‘technical’ learning in education.

Why have art colleges such little apparent interest in what is happening to art education in schools? Why, for instance, isn’t every single art college and university arts faculty in the land raising creative aspiration through engagement with the Sorrell Foundation’s inspirational National Art&Design Saturday Club? Are our art colleges – once the very nurseries of cultural and social activism – now quietly complicit in these negative developments, or have they nothing to say on such matters, or no longer any independent say?

Is this decline merely the unintended consequence of education policy decisions and institutional accountancy, or a more deeply-seated crisis of academic default – from active studio and workshop learning environments of making as poetics to a more passive culture of conceptual consumerism and art theory, altogether cheaper to resource and administer? By design or by default, these decisions have far-reaching consequences for individual lives, for the ecology of creative and cultural learning, and for competitive manufacturing and knowledge economies.

And is the very notion of craft as a ‘subject’ a growing impediment to making as learning or cognition? How are ideas made? How is language, or ‘technology’, or value, or community or identity made? What do you make of yourself? In these terms, have ‘the crafts’ as a sector rather compounded their cultural isolation through inattention to craft as a cognitive process that permeates all human culture? Or settled for the local satisfaction of finished artefacts for niche markets? 

By now you’ll have spotted an authorial preference for uncomfortable questions, rather than opinion per se, at work here. But opinions and questions that do not find resolution will remain ‘academic’. So how to begin repairing this damaged ecology of learning and creative practice?

Two years ago Plymouth College of Art commissioned an ambitious new estates masterplan from architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, commencing with decisive investment in craft, design and manufacturing workshops for big new making spaces and a transformational new technology base. 

We also came to a simple conclusion,  in response to the EBacc and the rapid withdrawal of Art & Design from KS4 curriculum option blocks, and following years of marginalisation and incremental crisis in art education. We’re an art college. We make things. Let’s make a school.

In September the Plymouth School of Creative Arts opened as a mainstream, open access, city-centre, 4-16 all-through school that places creativity in all subjects –and to the visual and performance arts in particular – at the very heart of both the curriculum and the pupil experience. We will deliver a broad, balanced curriculum with an ethos of learning through making: through practice, engagement and experience in all subjects. What makes a school? How is history, well being or fulfilment made? What might be the making of yourself? 

This is a trans-generational project: to build a progressive continuum of creative learning and practice from age four past Masters-level study into professional fulfilment. We opened to more than a hundred 4-6 year olds, who will help us build their school, for an eventual roll of 1,020 pupils. As a catalyst for community regeneration in an inner-city council ward with 43 percent child poverty, including some of the poorest 10 percent of neighbourhoods in the UK, our school will research practical pedagogical innovation and the impact of creative learning and practice on life chances. Our aim is not just to create a new kind of school, but a new kind of arts student.

You might see all this as activism or as poetics, from the classical Greek π οιειν (poie¯in), to make. At its heart is a confidence in the tacit operation of craft as human intelligence and attention in all subject domains – the articulation of hand, and eye and heart/mind. As they say of art making in China: just two won’t do. The same might be said of education policy. 

Against the grain of closure or decline elsewhere, the college is investing £8m in new craft, design and manufacturing workshops. Phase 1 (glass; ceramics; new painting, drawing and print-making studios) opened in September. Phase 2 (jewellery; textile fabrication; wet & dry textile print workshops; a FabLab, 3D printing, rapid prototyping, laser cutting) will open in March. 

With last September’s Making Futures III symposium, one of the most dynamic international cross-disciplinary communities of practice in contemporary craft, we are creating dynamic horizons for our work – in industry, in the community, across subject boundaries and overseas. Plymouth is the perfect place for this, for any history of this city has surely to include the horizon.

Andrew Brewerton is principal of Plymouth College of Art, trustee and chair of governors of Plymouth School of Creative Arts, and honorary professor of Fine Art at Shanghai University.