I have written a number of pieces on this website about art education. In my now 60-year career in both art, design and ‘publishing’ I have spent time teaching in college environments. Some of this teaching has been done in FE, running successful Foundation Courses and developing vocational OND/HND programmes. For a while I worked as an external assessor for universities and also assisted in the design of courses in various institutions including in what is now the London Institute and other Art Colleges. My experience of art education goes far beyond just designing courses and teaching on them as I have taught at every level from Junior School through briefly and unhappily in Secondary schools to running a post-graduate programme for Interior Designers, as well as teaching adult education as Director of Visual Arts at Morley College in London for several years.
For over 25 years I ran an award-winning design practise. I created edited and wrote an on-line design magazine which at its peak had 102,000 reader visits a day publishing news and design reviews. For this I visited and photographed locations in 35 countries, as a result speaking at Design conferences in the UK, Spain, Poland and Switzerland. Many of the Design Reviews I published in my design magazine were used as course/teaching material in colleges as far apart as Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Melbourne, Lausanne and Glasgow as well as in the rest of England. I think my knowledge of art education has been extensive, developing me as an artist and designer ever since I first stepped through the door of art college as a youngster to start a 2-year art ’Pre-Dip’ programme in 1965.
I lead with this to show the depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that colours what follows.
Like the Jesuits, I believe as a teacher ‘give me the boy and I will give you back the man’. The art college alters the soul and personality of the student experiencing creative years with guidance from experienced practitioners. Practitioners are not just qualified teachers but also those precious part timers who give up a day or two days a week from their studio practise to come and share their experience and knowledge with the growing creatives of the future. In my experience most of the best work in art education was done within the further education colleges within the foundation courses and within the four-year vocational programmes such as the old SIAD graphics programmes, and in 3D design courses.
Running a professional hospitality design practise as I did for over 20 years, we used to recruit two or three students a year directly from college on the basis that one wouldn’t last more than five or six weeks, one would stay a year or so and move on to promotion perhaps or to gain experience in a different practise, and one would stay with us for a number of years. Some of these have risen to be very senior within the ranks of the design profession both here and in the US, where I also worked briefly for a leading hospitality design practice. Our favourite route to find these recruits was the higher national diplomas in interior design. We discovered that degree students expected to become the design leaders within a practise and often lacked the humility to learn and spend time as the person who detailed up the design schemes of the seniors. Frequently they did not respect that it was the seniors who had created the practise, understood the Clients and obviously were the ones who wanted to lead the design teams.
The vocational programmes taught people who were very capable of running their own practises and many indeed did go on to do so. But equally many of those coming off vocational courses were very happy spending their time doing joinery details or electrical layouts and understanding how to run things on site effectively, something that often the graduate was unwilling to do being slightly terrified of anything really hands on. Frequently vocational students learned in local establishments and stayed to work and create businesses locally. Since the 1980s most of those very effective vocational programmes have largely disappeared.
Instead, we have increased the intake into the degree courses. At the same time the number of teaching hours has been decreased. The history of this stretches back into the 80s again when the Department for Education defined the full-time course as 16 hours. A lot of Colleges of Art were at the time running on 25 hours of taught studio work and so with the change in definition they would be paid per student the same if they only employed teachers for 16 hours rather than 25. There was an immediate drop in effective teaching which hit part timers quite hard many were not on contracts as such, paid by the day. As many of the courses changed into the degree programmes colleges were absorbed by the universities and the teaching was brought into line with much that happened in the rest of the university. The number of hours taught diminished again, sometimes down as low as eight hours a week which was a common amount within universities themselves where self-driven learning was the key.
Unfortunately for practical subject’s hands on taught learning is essential to develop safe workshop practices. In parallel with this many of the universities looked at the cost of, for example, running ceramics workshops with their associated materials usage, electricity usage and technician attendance. Some compared the cost of these practical programmes unfavourably against their own favoured academic subjects. This resulted in many of the practical workshop courses being closed. Falmouth for instance lost its Ceramics and High Wycombe, once the home of British furniture design, largely ceased to teach furniture as a specialist programme. These are just examples I know of, there are others with some specialist colleges such as Cordwainers disappearing altogether.
In the late 1990s I helped run a conference in Regents Park on the future of art education. At the time I was running a practise and I remember asking what the prospect was for finding employees if the vocational programmes were turned into degrees with a different learning system attached. I remember the Principal of, I think Falmouth Art School, standing in response and saying that if design practises wanted students as qualified as the ones they were getting currently, then under the new regime they would have to look for MA students rather than BA students to get the same level of skill. In other words, to equal the skill sets they were achieving under the old art school regime in three years they would have to do five years in the equivalent university system.
Art colleges were originally established by the Victorians as they saw the gains of the industrial revolution being overtaken by manufacturers elsewhere, in the United States and Germany especially, who had come to the scene later and seen design as a tool to take British markets. I remember moving into a house in Camberwell with the range still installed in the basement finding it had been bought in 1851 from the Great Exhibition and that it was an American cast iron range. It seems that after the 1851 exhibition the US stove manufacturer became the market leader in the UK, the home of the industrial ironworking. The Victorians realised that they needed to invest in design to remain competitive, so they set about creating an art College in every town with sizable manufacturing to act as a centre of design revolution within those productive industry areas.
With the closure of many of the art and design programmes within further education colleges, with the continuing loss of vocational programmes at sub degree level much of this innovation in design has disappeared, and the flow of local people into local firms has changed. The advantage for students of starting in an FE college was that if the course they chose whether it be a vocational graphics programme or a three-dimensional design programme or the foundation course didn’t work out for them they could usually turn within the college to an alternative course and transfer easily across. There were also many allied craft courses producing workers for local construction, garment etc, companies, supplementing and enhancing local apprenticeship schemes. In many small towns, like my own, all FE provision has been removed in favour of the University, cutting out access routes for many talented but not academically inclined people and also removing a source of continuing education within the community.
The number of hours available for teaching previously being high meant that many part timers who had left college with their skills honed were able to establish local workshops and studios to practise their art design subsidised by a couple of days teaching in the local art college in an environment which supported them both financially and creatively. It also enabled them to pass on their creative skills and knowledge by both example and teaching to the new generation of students, and kept creative centres alive in regional towns.
I was in a meeting with an exam board where they summoned all their assessors to hear the news that, under pressure from the Department for Education, they had accepted that drawing had to be assessed by written test. This nonsense was imposed because it was believed that art and design courses should have equivalence with other more academic discipline qualifications and the only way to achieve this was to assess in the same way. This even though it’s a completely different system of learning. It is a different language, a visual language, a language for the lateral thinker not for those University trained academics who use the left brain in linear fashion. It was also a measure of how little the Department for Education understands art education.
To my dismay many art tutors in this meeting did not protest. Outside afterwards I asked one of those who walked out with me why it was so many acquiesced and he said they wished to remain assessors because it benefited their career prospects. He also pointed out that many of them were very happy to see their art colleges absorbed into the university sector because they could become professors! Principles sacrificed for short term personal gain.
I believe that much of this change was driven by the snobbery of the University-trained administrators in the Department for Education. It was not financially driven as it coincided with a desire to increase the number of students going into degrees to 50%. I wrote a paper for the Chartered Society of Designers in response to the government inquiry into it this change in structure, predicting that the dropout rate among students would rise from the then current 13 or 14% to 45% as many of those who were pushed from vocational programmes into degree courses would leave because the form of learning would not suit them. This has indeed come to pass. Now, as well as courses closing, we have many people dropping out who may not have done in the past. Many of these are people who would have flourished in the skill based vocational structures of the local FE colleges.
In addition, new entrants into industry are now mostly coming from degree programmes with all the potential disadvantages outlined above. I would imagine, whilst I no longer am an employer, there is a diminution in their usefulness. It is embarrassing for both student and potential employer to interview a student who has won a design prize for architectural or interiors location to find they have no idea how they will supply the lighting circuits for their creation, as I found once when asking questions as a judge.
Many in the universities will say I’m wrong the students are just bright as they ever were. I don’t disagree with that, what I believe is that they do not provide a training of equivalent quality. In part this is because they are taking on less part time teachers (partly because their industrial experience shows up the limitations of many ‘professors’), they are teaching much larger year groups (I’ve seen a life room running with 100 students in it, such a nonsense). You cannot teach and engage with individuals when you have group size that is so large. It all puts the emphasis on self-driven learning which is fine for those doing literature but not if you want to be graphic designer or a fashion designer where there are practical skills which need to be acquired and understood.
As a member of the Chartered Society of Designers I failed to force my Society to take any action as it was dominated by University staff. Recently I received a survey as a lifetime member of the Royal Society of Arts asking me how effective I found the Society. As a design manager in the 80s and 90’s, a design critic and known as an industry ‘guru’, I found the RSA a useful institution. I booked rooms for meetings; used it as a library and as a location in London to meet with other designers and clients. However it too seemed absent in fighting the corner of vocational education or art and design at a basic level. All this inaction has been a disaster. I do not believe that the professional bodies have supported the ideals of the Bauhaus, William Morris and the other great designers coming out of the industrial revolution, who kept British design at the forefront of manufacturing for many years. In combination with the disastrous banking system that is averse to risk of all kinds we have seen much of design innovation moving abroad.
I was once asked to do a series of talks to Japanese design managers from leading companies in Japan (Sony etc.). Their key question to me was why is it Britain is so creative? Japan frequently picks up and exploits the inventions and new creations that we make. I told them that I believed our creativity and genius came from those basic FE college centres of revolution that the Victorians had the wisdom to build into our industrial towns, allied to the British lack of respect for rules. In common with much else that made Britain great it has been dispensed with by the self-satisfied ‘intellectual giants’ who nestle in the centres of our richer cities. Towns like Blackburn, Huddersfield and so on have seen their ‘centres of revolution’ muted. They recruited cheap migrant labour to serve e.g. weaving industries that ultimately failed to innovate in either technology or design and so failed economically sliding into decline, a decline supported by lack of investment from the finance industry or interest in the regions from London centric administrations.
If there is to be any future for a Royal Society of Arts or a Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, in whatever form a professional body will take, then it needs to battle down in the seed corn base of our creative communities. Doing grand talks on the nature of democracy is all very well and may well make government happy, awarding prizes to high achievers raises profiles of those at the top, but the neglect of opportunity for youngsters who do not wish to follow academic programmes, who do not wish to wear a mortar board and receive a scroll but actually want to acquire some workmanlike skills as designers, as creators, as craft makers, is a disaster for our country.
We need to invest in the grassroots. Yes, we have a Royal College that invests in the brightest and best supposedly (although it was interesting a few years ago when they introduced remedial life drawing classes because the basic skills were not present) coming forward from many degree courses, but the skills they nurture are starting from a lower point without the solid initial introductory grounding. This I can confirm too from my experience in adult education where life classes were filled with students who had completed degrees in local art colleges but had not got the drawing/visual skills that they knew they needed to do the jobs they were after. We need to invest in the grassroots, we must come down from the high horse intellectual world to plough new furrows in the earth beneath to grow the less able. We need to ensure that right from the start we revise the current poor secondary school art curriculum to teach people to look as well as to read write and add up. The level of visual literacy in an increasingly visual society is very poor and with it an understanding of self and critical abilities. We need to rebuild vocational training
Will someone come down off the high horses and lead a battle for the future of design and manufacturing in all our communities? We cannot live by consumerism alone, we must regenerate our traditions as innovative inventive creators. Who will lead a new art and design revolution?