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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Life and Style
fashion

News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleFormer Newsnight presenter is being touted for a brand new role
News
The two-year-old said she cut off her fringe because it was getting in her eyes
news

Video: It is the type of thing no parent wants to hear

Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

h2 Recruit Ltd: New Business Sales Manager - Talent Management - £60,000 OTE

£35000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A true market leader in ...

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Ashdown Group: HR Generalist - 2 week contract - £200pd - Immediate start

£200 per day: Ashdown Group: Working within a business that has a high number ...

Randstad Education Cardiff: Maths Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: We are currently recruiting f...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game