Can crafts close the gender gap?

Would boys do better if schools revived traditional subjects like metalwork that vanished 20 years ago?

Agroup of African-Caribbean boys cluster around a table scattered with hammers, bits of metal and unidentifiable tools, their green aprons squeezed over smart uniforms and Nike trainers. They're not watching a burly craftsman, but a neat, trendily suited man hammering a piece of metal in a vice.

www.craftspace.co.uk "It's a lot better than regular school," says Dontae Lawrence, 12, over the satisfying clunk of metal on metal. "Here we actually create stuff – we do soldering and hammering. This is what the professionals do."

Dontae is taking part in one of three projects bring piloted in Birmingham that are investigating what happens when you bring crafts back into the classroom. Devised by the charity Craftspace and funded with the City Council at a cost of £20,000, these projects are paying particular attention to boys who are underachieving. Could a return to the traditionally male-dominated crafts help schools close the gender achievement gap?

Dontae, who goes to Lordswood Boy's school in Birmingham, reckons he gets "told off a bit less" now he's joined the group, and his teachers back up his assertions. Plus he's got ambition. He looks up at me with his cane row hair and expensive trainers and says – with great sincerity – that he wants to be a jewellery maker. "I want to make more rings and charms and stuff – it's fun."

Will Evans has been running these jewellery-making workshops with Dontae and 15 other students for the last few months at the Ishango Science Club, taking them for six hours a week after school. If his clean-shaven appearance defies the stereotype of the traditional craftsman, so does his background. Born into a highly academic family, Evans spent his summer holidays working with a local blacksmith.

"Watching the flames and the metal and the sparks got me hooked when I was seven, and it gets them hooked too" he says."Then, after that initial attraction, you realise you can actually make something – their eyes light up when they're holding a finished product."

Evans' passion for the creative arts was so strong that it saw him walk out of a biology degree to become a full-time jewellery maker. But unlike many, Evans does not see the choice as a decision to shut down academia. Rather, the discipline is a way of pursuing subjects like science and maths in a different way: "You can use crafts as a vessel to teach pupils about other things. When we're using the ring stretchers in the classroom we're studying compression and tensile forces which is what they're required to do in Key Stage 3. They've learnt about repoussé and smouldering and how oxidation turns silver black. The trick is to engage them without watering down the craft or the science."

Results from Craftspace's pilots indicate that practical work may indeed improve students' attitudes and performance in other subjects. In one of the other pilots, which involved a lead-maker working with a difficult group of boys in Year 7 and 8, attendance improved 66 per cent and behaviour 67 per cent after a series of sessions on metals, plastics and ceramics. Craftspace plans to use such results to lobby the Government to push crafts back on to the curriculum. The idea of rolling the pilots out nationally will be discussed at a high-level conference this autumn.

Others, however, are more sceptical. Gabrielle Ivinson, a specialist in gender studies at Cardiff University who researches boys' underachievement, thinks that Craftspace's dream may represent a step back towards a more regressive system of education that saw working class young people shoehorned one way, and middle class students another.

"It's crazy to think that a middle class boy in a good school who is expected to get three As at A-level is going to do woodwork until he's 16," she says. "This kind of programme looks "Cool New Britannia", but there is a danger of going back to the tripartite system of 1944," she says.

"These programmes might motivate boys who are turned off by academic subjects in the short term, but you can't pretend these are the skills that are needed for a 21st-century workforce. The danger is that middle class kids will get all the stable jobs and those who take practical subjects will end up down the job centre being forced to retrain. The craft ideal is nice, but it's terribly nostalgic."

At present, crafts-based subjects are in decline. Westminster University's prestigious ceramics course is under threat and programmes have folded in other parts of the UK, including Glasgow. The remaining courses are shifting away from practical construction work towards fine art and academic analysis.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, boys are taking fewer of these courses and performing less well in them than girls. Traditionally a masculine subject, crafts now suffer from the highest gender achievement gap in the curriculum, with boys lagging 20 per cent behind girls, compared to a national average across all subjects of 7 per cent.

Ian Middleton, Ofsted's adviser for art and design, believes that projects like those being pioneered in Birmingham can help change that. Earlier this year he published a report that looked into 180 primary and secondary schools and found that although standards were generally good – with one-third of primary and two-thirds of secondary craft lessons being good or outstanding – they were highly variable.

He recommended that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport give every child the chance to work with a gallery, artist or craft person as a cultural entitlement. This isn't about going backwards he says, but is about reinvigorating long-established skills in a modern setting:

"It's a big mistake to stereotype these opportunities as 'traditional' – a lot of the craft work being done is modern, creative and highly imaginative," he says. "Traditional areas of industry have been automated, but there has been a resurgence in small craft-based industries. The creative industries are a growth area while the rest of the economy looks bleak."

Nor does Middleton think that crafts are about shoehorning working class children into vocational pathways. He points out that craftwork is now more popular in selective schools than state schools. Once the occupation of the common man, crafts could be in danger of becoming the preserve of an educated elite making high-end products for niche markets. To win crafts a place on the curriculum, campaigners will have to prove that it is snobbish to leave crafts out of the classroom, rather than put them in.

To find out more, visit www.craftspace.co.uk

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