John Hayes MP is the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning. Click here to read his recent speech on this topic to the Royal Society of Arts.
Practical learning has long been regarded by the educational establishment as a distant second to academic study. The degree brand retains an aura of intellectual and social exclusivity but the same can be said of few practical qualifications.
In part, this is due to the alarming frequency with which many such qualifications have come and gone. In recent times, we have seen the creation of new qualifications that initially seem useful but too often prove to be anything but when a youngster swaps school for the workplace.
But I refuse to believe that Britain is doomed to dwindle into a race of pseudo-celebrities and merchant bankers. On the contrary, I believe that it is British manufacturing, and the practical skills that underpin it, that must lead us into renewed economic growth. We must intensify our efforts to re-establish apprenticeships as the primary form of practical training.
This Government will create more apprenticeships than modern Britain has ever seen – a rise of 75,000 during this Parliament – and not just in the traditional craft sectors but in the new crafts too, such as advanced engineering; IT; the creative industries; and financial services.
I think it impoverishes our culture that apprenticeships, which have been around as a form of training for at least twice as long as universities, do not confer a specific title on those undertaking them. It was in an effort to redress this disparity that my colleague David Willetts recently announced that apprentices in the construction industry would in future be given the title of “technician”.
I plan to go further; people speak of the intellectual beauty of a mathematical theorem but there is beauty, too, in the economy and certainty of movement of a master craftsman. I believe that both kinds of beauty must be recognised. And that implies not that the stock of academe must fall but that the stock of craft must rise.
Proper recognition of craftsmen across sectors will not only offer the emblems of achievement to individuals but also provide business with important commercial advantages. Firms that invest in training deserve recognition and will be able to use the achievements gained by their staff as marketing tools.
At times like these, with many graduate recruiters cutting back, a practical skill may often be more marketable. As Lord Leitch and others have argued, the higher the skills levels available in an economy, the more they add to the value of products and services, the more profitable the economy as a whole is likely to become, the more jobs it will support and the more business we will win from other countries.
Raising skills levels brings social as well as economic benefits, like better public health, lower crime-rates and more intensive engagement by individuals in the sorts of voluntary and community activities that fuel the common good and power the national interest.
The Arts and Crafts movement recognised the undeniable link between satisfaction in work and quality of life. Its proponents considered the dehumanising effects of mass production in their own time and sought to recreate what they saw as a happier period for working people. A period when their skills were recognised, valued and freed to produce great art. I look back to the Englishmen who first raised the standard of craft skill as a force in the modern world – to Morris and Ruskin, Rossetti and Burne-Jones – and I think it’s high time to create a new aesthetics of craft, indeed, a new Arts and Crafts movement, for Britain in the 21st century.
That won’t be done overnight. But we are making a start. I am considering lending the Government's support to a new award for excellence in the crafts. Details are at an early stage, but I think it is right that excellence should be rewarded. I want to show that our society will benefit greatly when those who make policy understand what popular culture has always known – that manual ability, skill and craft give our lives additional meaning and value.
As a society, we do still acknowledge and appreciate skill: just look at the widespread fascination with the skills of celebrity chefs and professional dancers or the popularity of television and radio shows about architecture, engineering or fashion design. But we must recognise new and emerging skills, as well as those that have been overlooked or undervalued. And this instinctive value we feel for craft must be reflected by our education system.
Craft should be honoured and those who master it respected. So while we work to encourage the learning of practical skills, we must also work to build demand for and recognition of them. Diversifying our national skill set will enrich society and strengthen the economy. I believe that ours will be – must be – the age of the craftsman.