I spent a couple of years working closely with the Crafts Council on the Firing Up programme, a nationwide initiative to revive the use of kilns and ceramic knowledge in school departments. With sponsorship by the Esmee Fairnbairn Foundation, the project unfolded through a series of regional clusters every year. London, Liverpool & Plymouth took part in the first round and this is where I came on board. I originally signed up to teach twilight sessions to a cluster of five schools in the BA Ceramics Department of CSM, and ended up teaching the Camberwell cluster as they pulled out of the project quite late on. This meant I had the opportunity to visit the art department of 10 different schools and see what the state of art education is currently like. From red bricked gothic buildings with no obvious entrance, to shiny new glass box academies with few internal walls to hide behind, it felt like a sort of odyssey.
The one thing that came back to me as I left these schools is a strong sense of association between the character of the school and the principle. If you work in a school where the headmaster/mistress doesn’t prioritise the arts (and if Ofsted don’t, why would they?), then you’re going to struggle. Some schools would have very little staff and very little budget, whilst other schools had plenty of staff and plenty of resources. Ceramics is a very hard sell to schools. They do not see the benefits or the bigger picture straight away. They see storage issues, health & safety measures, cost of firings, material and equipment. If schools are characterised by their leadership, then the art departments are a reflection of their staff. And it was very comforting to know that all the art teachers were passionate and proactive about their subjects.
Around the same time, I produced new work for the Crafts Council’s handling collection, a superb resource for schools and educational organisations to touch and experience the quality of materials and ideas in their hands. The archive stretches quite far back so the collection must reveal an intriguing narrative arc of professional practice over time.