There are opportunities in stonemasonry.
It is one thing to know what stonemasonry is, another to have the skills required to produce it. And although some predict robots and artificial intelligence will take jobs, skills of all kinds are in short supply and employment at its highest levels since the 1970s.
There was no doubting the high level of masonry skills demonstrated by the students taking part in the UK Masonry Skills Challenge SkillBuild heats that took place at the new Somer Valley Campus at Bath College in England and Fort Valley College in Scotland last month (May).
The students taking part were from some of the top colleges teaching stonemasonry in the UK. In the English heat were teams from the colleges of Bath, Moulton, Weymouth and York, and the Building Crafts College in London.
In Scotland there were teams from Fort Valley College, Edinburgh and Glasgow Colleges, and Historic Scotland at Elgin.
The highest scorers from those who demonstrated the required standard will compete against each other for top place at SkillBuild during what was The Skills Show but has now been renamed WorldSkills UK Live. The annual Skills Show developed out of the huge success of the international WorldSkills competition at ExCeL London in 2011, when Chris Berridge won the stonemasonry Gold Medal for Team UK.
The Masonry Skills Challenge heats are organised by Stone Federation Great Britain with CITB as the organising partner.
What is now WorldSkills UK Live is a skills and careers exhibition that takes place this year at the NEC, Birmingham, 15-17 November.
The international WorldSkills competition takes place every other year in different parts of the world. Last year it was in Abu Dhabi. There were 1,249 competitors from 58 countries competing in 51 skills. Archie Stoke-Faiers, who trained at Weymouth, represented British stonemasonry and won a Silver Medal. The next WorldSkills is in Kazan, Russia, 2019.
WorldSkills UK Live at the NEC is helping to raise the profile and status of vocational (or technical) skills, with the SkillBuild competition providing live demonstrations of a wide range of occupations as the participants compete against each other throughout the exhibition.
Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive of WorldSkills UK, a partnership between governments, business and education, says the change of name of the exhibition is part of “a bit of a facelift” for the event that last year attracted more than 70,000 visitors, mostly school pupils and their parents and teachers.
Dr Bentley says: “The core principle behind our event from its founding through to today remains strong: to encourage more young people to pursue apprenticeships and technical careers. That principle has never been more relevant. With governments throughout the UK united around the need to increase apprenticeship starts, further technical education and improve careers aspiration and advice, our annual event is a one-stop-shop for all these ambitions.”
Dr Bentley says success is clear. Three months after last year’s event a survey of adults who attended was carried out and all the teachers said they had engaged in at least one follow up activity. Also, 97% of parents said they had engaged in a follow up activity or planned to do so. Nearly three-quarters of teachers said they were better placed to advise young people about apprenticeships and nearly half of them said they were more likely to do so.
Dr Bentley: “Given that WorldSkills UK’s mission is to change the national conversation around technical education and apprenticeships, it’s really positive to see the difference we’re helping to make.”
The government wants to encourage people into apprenticeships to overcome skills shortages and break down status divisions that have resulted from an emphasis, particularly in the past 25 years, on the university route.
It has left technical education with a prestige deficit the government is now trying to address.
One of the ways it is doing that is the development of a new framework for 16 to 19-year-olds of 15 technical routes to skilled employment. The routes are either classroom- / workshop-based (T levels) or work-based (apprenticeships). Eleven of the routes will be delivered as classroom or workshop based T levels and the other four routes are apprenticeships.
The Government is now claiming exclusivity on the word ‘apprenticeship’ for its new Trailblazers. They have to include off-site training and a final examination, which is presumably going to have to involve the colleges.
The apprenticeships have to be developed by the industries themselves so they are relevant to employers. The stone industry is working on its Trailblazers through the Natural Stone Industry Training Group (NSITG), with Michelle Turner of Stone Restoration Services, Chair of NSITG, leading the development of them.
Initially the government said there had to be just one apprenticeship at level 2 or 3, but not both. Several of the trades said that was not feasible as some people would not be able to achieve a level three qualification.
The carpenters & joiners and the bricklayers have both been allowed to have level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships and that is now the route stonemasonry is taking.
The government also wanted stonemasonry to be among the ‘craft’ apprenticeships, while the industry itself wants to be considered part of ‘construction’ and retain the relationship it has always had with CITB. That would mean companies taking on apprentices would receive £9,000 per student from CITB at level 2 and £12,000 per student at level 3.
The government has created Apprenticeship Officers to work with industry on the development of Trailblazers, but none of those so far appointed to assist the stone industry have stayed very long and NSITG is on its ninth Officer. Each new one that is appointed has some element of catch-up to go through, which has frustrated the sector’s efforts. Nevertheless, progress is being made and it is hoped the level 2 apprenticeship will be in place in time for the start of the new academic year in September. The level 3 apprenticeship will follow as soon as possible.
In both cases, there will be a general stonemasonry skills element with different specialisation routes (heritage, banker, fixer and so on) to successfully completing the overall apprenticeship.
Claire Wallbridge, who has taken over as Training Officer of the Natural Stone Industry Training Group.
Claire comes from a family of stonemasons and has a background in construction training and project management. She had previously worked alongside the Stone Federation in her role as CITB National Specialist Federation Manager and says she welcomes the opportunity to work with the sector again.
NSITG met quarterly during 2017 to continue to promote a fully skilled and qualified workforce and to ensure that all training was in line with stone sector employers’ needs, being accessible and affordable with minimum time spent on off-the-job training.
Due to changes to CITB’s funding criteria for training groups, it is now obliged to meet only twice a year. Its agenda remains unchanged but it now has greater flexibility for group activity.
Since March this year, NSITG has been subject to a new Memorandum of Understanding in partnership with CITB.
CITB has decided to allow training groups to focus on their own desired outcomes and not be restricted by an imposed set of result-driven criteria, which were often not in line with the sector’s own agenda for training and development.
NSITG has successfully bid for funding to assist members to undertake the Stone Professional Practice course and NVQs, and to obtain PTLLS qualifications in training in order to be able to assist companies wishing to offer in-house training to employees. More details on www.nsitg.org.uk.
During 2017 Claire Wallbridge helped 13 member companies apply to CITB’s Flexible Skills & Training funds along with dealing with training enquiries new to the stone sector. This activity is intended to gain momentum during 2018.
NSITG has also been approached by CITB to assist with a review of all short duration courses currently receiving grants from CITB. NSITG members will be asked to comment on course content, viability and relevance. Claire Wallbridge says this is an ongoing process and will allow NSITG to influence the outcome of the review and ensure the sector has an impact on future courses offered.
NSITG has also been approached to engage with the Institute of Apprenticeships (IOA) and Department for Education in a review of all technical courses delivered at higher and further education level. The review is being carried out alongside the Trailblazer development and NSITG is ensuring the Stone Sector has significant representation.
With only Trailblazers allowed to be called apprenticeships, what used to be the Specialist Apprenticeship Programme now becomes the Specialist Applied-Skills Programme (retaining the SAP acronym). The training involved is essentially the same.
Priestman Associates, of which NSS columnist Mark Priestman is a Director, has been given the contract by CITB to continue to deliver the level two Facade Preservation and Stone Fixing SAPs, which it developed, while the level three Heritage Masonry SAP contract has been awarded to John Munroe at The Traditional Building Skills Company.
For the colleges with specialist stonemasonry and conservation courses the T-Levels and Trailblazers will require a bit more work. Education seems to be in a constant state of flux that those on the front line somehow have to work through. With the stonemasonry Trailblazer yet to be completed and the final exams still to be determined, and T-Levels still evolving, those trying to put together a syllabus have less to go on than they might wish. But no doubt they will work through the frustrations and students will learn the skills they need for a career in the industry. As Paul Maggs at Bath College says: “Stonemasonry is stonemasonry.”
The stonemasonry courses at Bath College were moved out of Bath city centre last year to new workshops in Radstock, 8-9 miles from the site they previously occupied. One lecturer left to join CITB and has been replaced by Joe Lebra, who learnt his skills at Longleat with the late Chris Lapham.
Most of the colleges are happy to help with community projects to give the students practical experience of working alongside designers and contractors.
One project that the Bath stonemasonry students are currently working on is a Forest of Dean sandstone plaque to Henry John Patch, who died at the age of 111 in 2009. He came from Combe Down, Bath, and was believed to have been the last survivor to have seen action on the Western Front in World War I. A road is being named after him on a new housing development and he will be commemorated by the plaque.
Bath students are also repairing gate piers at Parade Gardens, including re-making large urns that used to sit on top of them using stone donated by a local Bath stone company. The locals have become used to the College contributing to such projects and the College Principal encourages departments to help out where they can.
At Moulton College in Northamptonshire the stonemasonry students are preparing to carve animal sculptures for what used to be Wellingborough Zoo, the owner of which was famous for taking Simba the lion to a local pub and even once to the cinema.
Emma Dexter, the tutor in charge of Moulton’s stonemasonry courses, will be carving two lions for the project and the students are producing a variety of other animals carved from one-tonne blocks of limestone. They have completed clay maquettes and will begin carving the stone during the summer. Students also go as far as Exeter Cathedral for work experience, although Emma says: “Local companies are brilliant as well.”
She says that 80% of her third year students already have jobs secured. “That’s what it’s all about for me: getting them trained up so they’re good enough to get jobs. Then the companies take over from me. The wonderful thing here is we have the time for them to learn to do it by hand.”
In London, the students at the Building Crafts College (BCC) have been working with the architects at MUF to create public art. They have made a stone table and have grit-blasted blocks of pennant to create what are being called ‘bees’ as seats.
BCC students are also working on a 2.5m high Portland limestone obelisk for the Naval College in Greenwich. All the students produced drawings of suggestions for carvings on the obelisk and a representation of lines of longitude and latitude with star constellations was chosen.
Nigel Gilkison, who runs the stonemasonry courses at the BCC (although he says his colleague John Whitbread has taken the lead on this project), says: “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the architect, which is good for the students. We try to treat these jobs very commercially, so the students get a feel for the real world.”
Once apprenticeships and college courses are finished, some people like to develop their skills further and there is some specific help available from bodies such as Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) with its William Morris Fellowship, QEST with Scholarships, the Prince’s Foundation and the Lettering Arts Trust. They can help meet the costs of specialist training.
Some useful contacts...
Natural Stone Industry Training Group
Tel: 07511 464346
National Heritage Training Group
Tel: 01246 252 363
City of Bath College
Tel: 01225 312191
Building Crafts College
Tel: 0208 522 1705
City & Guilds of London Art School
Tel: 0207 735 2306
Edinburgh’s Telford College
Tel: 0131 559 4000
Elgin Stonemasonry Training Facility
Tel: 0131 221 6272
Glasgow Metropolitan College
Tel: 0141 566 6222
Moulton College, Northampton
Tel: 01604 491131
West Dean College
Tel: 01243 811301
Tel: 01305 764744
Tel: 01904 770462
Heritage Craft Alliance
Tel: 01677 422289
NAMM (memorial fixing/testing)
Tel: 01788 542264
National Heritage Training Group
Tel: 01246 252363
The Orton Trust (weekend courses)
Tel: 01536 711600
Tel: 0115 975 1880
The Traditional Building Skills Company
Tel: 01497 831125
Scottish Lime Centre
Tel: 01383 872722
0207 613 8500
Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)
Tel: 0207 377 1644
Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST)
Tel: 0207 798 1535
Lettering Arts Trust