Monday, 26 January 2015

Ceramics class

I have been attending a class at City and Islington College for the last seven years. It's a ceramics class. We have always paid full-fees and not been subsidised by the government quango the Skills Funding Agency and therefore not subject to the same rules as that provision (unlike the vast majority of provision in the college).

This week we found out that the college intends to close the department and turn the studios into additional classroom space that can be used to align more closely to the college vision, and provide more space for short qualifications and their exams. This they justify because of the way they have aligned their overall vision to the funding they draw from the Skills Funding Agency. So in a cold business sense they are considering their unique selling point as a place where young people can gain skills that lead them directly into employment and that their main resource is the space they have which therefore means it can be better utilised to meet that vision.

They also made an argument that the ceramics department is costly to run, doesn't have enough measurable achievement in terms of qualifications gained and progression to higher levels or further study in more "useful" curriculum areas. And has too many persistent repeat learners (clearly a sign that the students are not  learning anything - so the report claimed). I know this argument  from where I work - we can only claim funding for a learner for one 10 week course in any one academic year, if they do another course we get nothing for them. However we could deliver non-subsidised courses if we had learners who were willing to pay for them.

I wanted to answer to some of these assumptions. Starting with the one about achievement and progress.

Ceramics is a skill-based course which means that in a mixed ability class (as ours is) the students who are starting benefit from the experience of the ones who have been studying longer. We are not on an accredited course so nobody is taking an exam at the end. And we set targets and goals through an individual learning plan that is commonly used in the sector to measure achievement and on-course progression. 

My personal achievement and progression can be seen clearly when you look at the first pots I made and the ones I am making now. 

These are my first pinch pot, first coil pot and first slab pot, in that order.Compare this to my last pinchpots and a few of my latest coil pots.  

We started a class blog way back at the beginning of the time that I have been studying there. As a blogger I thought it would be a great forum to show a chronological and pictorial record of the students' development over time and provide a vehicle for a 'community of practice' where we could share what we made and how we made it - successes and failures - for the benefit of all the students in the class and for reference outside of class time. Thursday Evening Class Blog. This record clearly shows the achievement and progression within class that individually and collectively we have made. Its not a common way of recording and it isn't measurable in the way that the bean-counters of Whitehall recognise.

But personally I believe I have progressed in terms of skill, knowledge and artistic merit when it comes to the practice of ceramics. This I have gained from coming to successive courses and continuing with my own personal development within the confines of a mixed ability class. I now have experince of making glazes and using them in a variety of experimental ways, knowledge about different clay bodies and how they behave, how to combine them. Much better making ability. And a much stronger sense of what I am trying to achieve artistically. The college has always been proud of the work of the ceramics class and has displayed our work in the main entrance of the building. One such display piqued the interest of a passer by so much that he came into the college to find out how much the pot was selling for - it was my pot, we had a conversation, and eventually it didn't work out but with the right setting I also believe there is a market for my pots. This is both progression and achievement. There may not be a job called "ceramicist" that I can take this skill and go and work as, but as a pathway to a potential new type of work this is exactly the way many craftspeople and artists journey to professionalism.  

This class is in the long tradition that we have in Britain of liberal arts education and provision for people, outside of their working lives, to learn skills and subjects for both their own pleasure and for betterment of themselves. We remember fondly the days of the Inner London Education Authority when adults could study all over the capital doing a huge range of courses from foreign languages, reading and writing to photography, fine arts and all kinds of health and fitness. I know many people who are currently working in fields that they got into after attending evening classes, finding a passion and following it through to professional qualification. This includes the tutor of my ceramics class - she started as a student in the provision which she now manages, gradually working up through the department. But I also know massage therapists, counsellors, muscicians, burlesque performers, accountants, social workers, amongst others who have begun their career change with an evening course at a college which didn't specifically lead to a qualification.

The next thing I find I want to answer to is that the only types of courses that are about "employability" are either about reading and writing and maths, or are vocationally driven (accounting, business studies, brick laying, motor mechanics, hairdressing, for example). I am a contracts manager, I work in adult learning. I got a degree in three dimensional design from a good art college. This degree did not prepare me to be a contracts manager, or to know anything about adult learning. But it did provide me with a problem solving type of brain, practical, able to transfer skill from one task to another, to research, write at length and be curious about process.We also had to take part in crits weekly which meant that we were able to stand up in the group present and defend our work. Often in the face of severe criticism. All of which has made me a valuable member of any team I have ever worked in. And no workplace wants a team made up of people with exactly the same aptitudes, skills and experience - different people bring different talents, where would we be without a balance between the plants, implementers, completers and shapers (amoungst others if we are to believe Belbin). The most depressing thing about the state of further education is the total disregard for the value of any type of liberal arts education, or anything that doesn't sound exactly like a job out there in the market today.

We let art education, or music education or craft or any of those types of knowledge disintegrate entirely and we will be left without the ability to be able to teach these skills to the next generation. A dismantled pottery studio, with kilns, wheels, equipment and knowledgable staff can not be easily reinstated without a large investment. When its gone, its gone.

I worry for our large further education institutions. They are both chasing funding and narrowing their scope of delivery. What happens to them when the next funding fad happens? Wouldn't it be better to have a vision that is about education and not about what the main funder wants? Isn't that the better way to cement yourself in your business? I could see a dual purpose college - full of people studying short qualification courses by day so that they quickly achieve a qualification that helps them progress into or within work and full of working people wanting to learn skills in evening courses who can afford to pay full fees for the provision. There, surely, is space for both visions. 


la peregrina said...

Ironic that a institution of learning does not understand that everything you study helps you become a better, more valuable employee. If the college wants to only produce work drones, they are on the right track.

(I like the Thursday Evening blog.)

Harriet (the fshlady) said...

Agree but education like the NHS has become more about business than education or health. The business model of needing definable countable outcomes doesn't fit at all with the ethos held by the vast majority of people working in and attending either service. It doesn't sit well at all. J

la peregrina said...

Business writer Daniel H. Pink has this to say about short-term goals (Which is what this college is focusing on.):

"A lot of times when you have very short-term goals with a high payoff, nasty things can happen. In particular, a lot of people will take the low road there. They'll become myopic. They'll crowd out the longer-term interests of the organization or even of themselves."

People and organizations can be their own worst enemy.

Hollie Goodall said...

Hi Harriet. I'm an MA broadcast journalism student at City University and I'm putting together a piece on the campaign to stop the closure of City and Islington college's ceramics dept. Would you be available to meet me this Wednesday for s quick interview? Please email me at or tweet me @HollieGoodall