A group wearing graduation gowns throw their mortar boards in the air to celebrate. Behind them, light from the setting sun turns Gloucester Cathedral orange against a blue sky.
Students celebrate receiving their Foundation degree in Applied Historic Building Conservation and Repair at Gloucester Cathedral, September 2019. The course now has 38 craft graduates. © Gary Price
Students celebrate receiving their Foundation degree in Applied Historic Building Conservation and Repair at Gloucester Cathedral, September 2019. The course now has 38 craft graduates. © Gary Price

Cathedrals, Craft Training and Covid-19

By Frances Cambrook, Executive Director of the Cathedrals’ Workshop Fellowship

Our cathedrals stand testament to the skills of the craftspeople who built and have maintained them for a thousand years. Between them, the nine Anglican cathedrals who deliver craft education and training through the Cathedrals’ Workshop Fellowship (CWF), have endured and survived plagues, earthquakes, wars and recessions, so one might expect us to rise to this century’s challenge with equanimity. We shall do our best.

The CWF delivers a work-based, practical, foundation degree for craftspeople in cathedrals and commercial conservation companies. Our underpinning philosophy is that cathedrals’ own master craftspeople are best placed to develop the knowledge and skills of the next generation in the traditional ‘master to apprentice’ way. We enhance the traditional apprenticeship model by bringing groups of students together to learn from experts in all the cathedrals, not just their own.

Put another way, we travel. A lot. And when we get where we’re going we work closely together in groups. A recipe for Covid-19 spreading mayhem!

We responded early to the call to limit unnecessary travel by postponing a forthcoming study workshop scheduled for 24 March in Lincoln. Speakers and room bookings were cancelled, and weeks of planning and preparation were set to one side.

Students were disappointed, but accepting, and continued practical assignments at work whilst we considered how to conduct assessments remotely. It quickly became clear that we were dealing with more than a temporary inconvenience.

Some students were already self-isolating before lockdown was announced on 23 March, unable to continue practical assignments. Within days, most students and tutors were placed on furlough by their cathedrals.

With students now at home, and no quick or easy way to deliver our practical course remotely, the difficult decision was taken to suspend the course completely until at least September.

Work is underway to consider when, and how, we can restart the course within whatever ‘new normal’ guidelines on travel and social distancing emerge.

This raises a number of issues and questions:

  • Practical demonstrations and discussions with practitioners are our raison d’etre. Can this be replicated effectively via webinars and videos?
  • Our tutors are busy practitioners, not experts in online teaching. Do we have the technical expertise and time to create effective online materials and host remote seminars?
  • Students value the practical nature of the course and the opportunity to study on-site at cathedrals and historic buildings. Will students be as motivated and inspired by technology-assisted remote learning?

This leads inevitably and uncomfortably to the ultimate question, should we suspend the course indefinitely until there is a Covid-19 vaccine?

The challenges for the cathedrals and the CWF are significant, but there are some silver linings.

Craftspeople tend to prefer communicating in person rather than through IT. However, several tutors have now tried web conferencing tools, and acknowledge that it is an effective and economical way to do business. We’ll definitely be keeping that swap!

Students have admitted that they are reading more and using the time to reflect on their progress and previous feedback instead of just focusing on the current task. Hooray!

In terms of support, it would help organisations like the CWF if funding schemes recognised that one size does not fit all. Sometimes initiatives are successful precisely because they do not conform to conventional definitions of how things should be done.

Cathedrals have learnt over the centuries that skilled craftsmanship takes time and developing craft skills takes longer. Our approach to craft training is rigorous but expensive, and cathedrals need financial support to sustain the initiative and continue developing the specialist craft skills they need.

Historians will evaluate the impact of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic on our cathedrals and historic buildings and compare and contrast with previous disasters. We must live through it and manage the consequences as calmly and effectively as possible.

When asked ‘what are you missing most about the CWF course?’ one student gave the response below.

Learning from expert craftspeople around the country, interacting with fellow students, visiting their cathedrals and cities, the knowledge the course imparts and the understanding it brings.

CWF course student

Clearly the answer to my ultimate question is, ‘no, we must find a way’.

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