Alice Rees is an impressive woman. My childhood fears of having a meeting with a deputy headmistress were dispelled the minute Alice walked into The Goodlife Centre. Alice wanted us to teach a class of 10 year olds woodwork. She has great expectations of her year 6 pupils and they respond accordingly.
Her visit was prompted by a publication she showed me that required something new in Key stages 1 and 2 of the school curriculum. ‘ Making’ is back; in some lucky schools at least.
I read the newly published government paper written by people who don’t make things, who were instructing schools who don’t have the resources to make things, to teach children to make things.
I was more than happy to help.
Alice assured me that her class could handle the challenge of a series of ‘proper’ woodwork sessions leading to a final project in wood.
Cathedrals school in Southwark is also fortunate to have Tony Aquinn as one of the governors. Tony is a tutor at Central St. Martins; an art school that cultivates many of london’s leading young graduates, who in turn, will contribute to Britain’s global reputation for craft, fashion and design. He also agrees that learning hand skills as a child is an important foundation for acquiring logical thinking and spacial awareness valued by architects and engineers as well as artists.
We chose a three legged stool as a project. It’s an ancient piece of furniture with a very forgiving design. It stands upright on any surface; it does not wobble even if the legs are not quite the same height and we decided to make it the height of a dining chair so that it could be a useful and enduring addition to a household.
Before the children arrived, I asked for a list of their heights and equipped our workshop with lower benches, small work gloves and shorter aprons. All the tools are the same ones we use in our adult classes.
The course was split into five weekly two hour sessions.
From the moment the children came into the studio, we had their full attention. Not one has showed the trace of boredom or frustration and they all threw themselves into the project with a maturity and concentration that impressed Ben and Ruth, two of our tutors who teach adult workshops here. We invited Alice and Timi, a teaching assistant, to come to our regular workshops and learn how to make a stool themselves. By showing them the process, we were able to have an impressive staff/pupil ratio and I think they have rather enjoyed adding woodwork to their skill set.
I recently described the workshops to someone who asked if the children could even stand for two hours.
They had to measure and mark their work, then drill holes for dowels to joint two lengths of pine board for the stool tops. As if the drills hadn’t been exciting enough, they gasped with glee when we told them they would cut the boards into circles on the bandsaw, with one-on-one supervision and the help of a device, known as a jig, to keep the wood in place while cutting a circle.
They worked tirelessly with drills, saws, rasps and sandpaper. On the last session they sanded their creations for 45 mins stopping only to grab water to quench their thirsts while they compared how smooth they had made the wood with one another. Along the way, they learned about the grain of the wood,growth rings, making ‘jigs’ and aligning wood so that it is’ flush’.
The children completed the project by writing their name and date under the stool tops and I assured them that if they were lucky enough to grow very old, they could tell their grandchildren that they made it themselves when they were ten.
We are going to put all the stools on show at the centre for the children’s families to admire before they take them home. I hope they will be as impressed as I am.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that combining children and sharp tools is a recipe for a bloodbath of chopped limbs and mayhem.
I have always suspected that this low opinion of the abilities of children was incorrect. I think of boy apprentices in years gone by and child labour around the world today and know that the capacity for hand craft can be developed from an early age.
We marvel at the sewing samplers made by Victorian girls, working their names and dates with thread but we don’t give the opportunities to young people to be able to develop hand skills from an early age. We scold about ‘Games Console hands’ but don’t offer alternate opportunities of disciplined manual craft.
I have a photo of a Victorian class of boys in a carpentry class in a Kilburn school . The caption states that the purpose of the class is’ the training of the eyes and hands to habits of accuracy and neatness’.
Mark Miodownik, a material scientist at University College London spoke on ‘The Life Scientific’ on Radio 4 in March 2014. He pointed out that we would be shocked at the idea of making music being lost by society, but we have shut ourselves off from making. We have let ‘making’ objects become unimportant although it is part of what defines us a species. Us humans got our head start from tool making.
I hope that the project will have lasting effects on the children. I believe that some of them learnt that they were good at something that didn’t measure their abilities (or lack of them ) to read or write and that raised their self esteem. Sometimes learning difficulties should be redefined as teaching difficulties. Outsourcing workshops for schools is one solution. It would be more cost effective than trying to maintain tools and specialised technicians and would lead to more children discovering talents they can’t access in a conventional classroom.