Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Freeman College an inspirational visit

2 days before Christmas I had the privilege of a most inspiring visit to Freeman College in Sheffield and a tour by Helen Kippax the principle.

Freeman college is the most recent of three colleges run by Ruskin Mill Educational Trust  which for a quarter of a century, has pioneered a unique, holistic and student-centred approach to the education and care of young people who fall between the cracks of mainstream provision. In 1984 Aonghus Gordon discovered that when such students work with craftspeople in natural environments on real-life, purposeful tasks, their personal, emotional and social skills, behaviour and health improve dramatically.

Part of the ethos of the founders is to work with skilled craftspeople and the regional specialist crafts so in Sheffield the new college curriculum centres on metalwork and cutlery. The first project new students take on is forging a copper spoon from a solid billet. This board shows the process.

 But perhaps this is more telling as this is work in progress by current students.

Here are some finished pieces of cutlery. bear in mind that these students have struggled in all other educational environments and there are a high proportion with autism, asperger's and other issues.

The key to the process is that the teachers are not teachers but highly skilled craftspeople who the students have respect for. I can understand that respect, in charge of spoon forging is George who worked for 25 years as a silversmith and another 5 making surgical instruments before working at the college, he clearly knows a lot about metalwork at a very practical level but he is also clearly great with the students. 

George has 3 students at a time hammering away at their copper billets and then refining the form by filing and finally polishing.

After copper students that enjoy hand forging can progress to working with silver. I personally think this is pretty impressive work and great to see folks working from a raw billet, I can imagine the sense of achievement they must get.

I have been spreading the idea for some time that I would like to see every Sheffield schoolchild given the chance to make a piece of cutlery as a way of learning about who they are and where they come from. I would also like to see children in Stoke make a bowl they could take home and eat their breakfast from, children in High Wycombe make a simple piece of furniture, in Luton a hat and so on. It was sharing this vision at a Sheffield City Council culture meeting recently that put me in touch with Helen and Freeman College because this is exactly the vision they have for their students. After experiencing hand forging they also get to work in a more typical production workshop.

The "whittle tang" workshop was set up and is run by a chap who's name I am afraid I forget but he again had 25 years experience working in the industry running various commercial cutlery workshops. I asked how he found the difference working with the students and if it was difficult coping with the health and safety issues with challenging young people. He actually said it was no different to working in industry where he would have to train 16 year olds when they first came into work and they had the same issues of struggling to get out of bed in the morning and having bad days when they had fallen out with the girlfriend, it was his job to be sympathetic to that but also to make sure that when in the workshop they could focus on the task in hand and work in a safe way.

The idea here is that students get to work using machinery and produce useful goods for sale. This is the start of the process where the raw sheets of metal are stamped out as spoon blanks.

The blanks are then pressed using hand operated fly presses which put the bowl shape into the spoon.

Each piece is then hand finished and polished on the buffing wheels before silver plating. Knives get wooden handles which are all sawn and shaped by students from recycled wood.

This is all just fantastic and shows what can be achieved. It is great that these facilities are available and fulfilling a very specific need of the 70 students a year at the college. I hope that in the future that such rewarding work experience will be a possibility for every schoolchild as part of their mainstream education.

More details on Freeman College here
and Ruskin Mill Educational Trust here

Finally in 2008 RMET published an excellent research paper by Dr Aric Sigman looking at "The benefits and mechanisms associated with a craft based curriculum."

This research noted that.

"While the effects of a practical curriculum have been valued and noted (LSC, 2008; Ofsted, 2007), research in cognitive neuroscience and psychology continues to find surprising and previously unrecognised benefits that are conferred upon pupils. Moreover, the mechanisms behind these benefits point to the urgent need for greater incorporation of such practical elements into mainstream  education. Beyond the cognitive and neurological aspects of the craft-orientated curriculum are secondary processes such as mentoring through apprenticeship. These produce further benefits that aid the development of the pupil into a more socially viable and employable young adult. The findings of this report are applicable to pupils with or without learning difficulties."

It is an excellent paper for anyone with an interest in how people learn and the broad benefits of working with the hands.

The ethos of RMET is based on a blend of the teachings of John Ruskin and Rudolph Steiner yet the outcome is remarkably similar to the theory of educational sloyd which was developed by Otto Salomon in Sweden and became quite mainstream in the 1920's eventually developing into city and guilds and school woodwork teaching in the UK. Sadly what started as a system of education where the products were not as important as the change in the student has gradually changed into current "resistant materials" teaching in school which seems to be primarily aimed at training in design and industrial processes.


  1. Thank you for reporting on your vistit, Robin. I found this post to be fascinating and thought-provoking. As a world history teacher in a main stream high school here in Pennsylvania, I see many student every day that would benefit greatly from a curriculum such as you described. It is unfortunate that these students often lack such opportunities and often face a cultural stigma that seems to value purely academic success over working with one's hands.

    Dave Fisher

  2. Interesting what can be achieved by a different approach. I've a disabled grandson who has been more disabled by normal schooling.

  3. his name is richard

  4. Well just had to look at this site and suprise suprise its George & Richard. This is brush man. Hope you are ok.