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.   hunkin





 As I’ve got older, I’ve become increasingly keen to pass on some of my skills to a new generation. A few years ago I ran some day workshops for the Nesta Ignite program. I had 9-12 year olds using power tools and playing with car windscreen washer pumps and making slot machines and safes. I found that even with small groups of six kids and help from other adults it was hard to keep up with all the kids’ needs. I’m sure that if I had continued, I would have got better at running workshops, but I’m not naturally a group person. I’ve never really been part of any group, I find it much easier talking to one person than a group. So rather than continue the workshops I decided to try taking on an apprentice. 

I’m not in my workshop every day and I could never find things to keep a kid occupied full time, so I took on Gabriel, the son of a friend, still at school, to come every Saturday afternoon. I had tried two other kids but they made me nervous that they would do something dangerous while my back was turned. Gabriel was more cautious and also bright and keen. It was wonderful seeing his skills improve, getting confident using all the tools and becoming increasingly ambitious. We bought some Picaxe chips and found that he was better at programming Basic than me. Even though I’ve been able to teach kids good things in workshops, its not as satisfying as watching an apprentice gradually blossom. 

After a couple of years I was so proud of how well it had worked out that I started planning an informal apprenticeship website. I’m sure there are many other older tradesmen and geeks like me who would enjoy passing on their accumulated skills. And many of them, like me, would better with one kid than with a group. A site to give them a bit of encouragement, and link them to kids who are keen to learn, seemed a good idea.

At about the same time Gabriel had asked if he could do his school workshop experience with me. This is a UK scheme for all 14-15 year old kids to spend two weeks out of school in a place of employment. Even though I knew my workshop didn’t meet current safety standards, I agreed, hoping I could reach an agreement with the school. 

 All workplaces on the work experience scheme have to be inspected, so an inspector came to visit. I was nervous, but  the interview seemed to go OK. He then asked to see ‘the workplace’. When I showed him in he said ‘Goodness, a proper workshop! I’m afraid this has heavy machinery so it won’t be suitable for the work experience program. I suggest you just continue with your informal arrangement.’ I knew this might be his reaction, and as he obviously liked my workshop, I wasn’t offended. I relaxed and told him how Gabriel’s parents had recently become less keen on delivering and collecting him every week and now expected him to come by bike and public transport which took hours. Perhaps he should come in the holidays and stay over. I had been imagining him staying with his uncle who lives next door to me but didn’t have time to say it because the conversation suddenly turned. 

The inspector said ‘So you’re alone with this child in your workshop. I must give you some advice – you need to get yourself some protection’. The way he said it, it sounded like I should use a contraceptive, but he obviously meant that a second person should be present. I was so shocked and completely unprepared for this I just didn’t know what to say. He left, saying ‘you’ll certainly be hearing from me again’. At the time I was terrified, thinking I had somehow been proved to be a paedophile. 

Obviously, my idea for an informal apprenticeship website was hopelessly naive. This is sad, but it doesn’t make the idea impossible. Gabriel’s father was reassuringly casual when I told him what had happened. Once I had recovered from the shock, I realised that I actually had nothing to fear. It was Gabriel’s parents who had initially asked if Gabriel could come, I saw them every week and they were constantly supportive. Informal arrangements like this are outside the scope of child protection legislation. I still think an informal apprenticeship can provide a wonderful learning experience. In the current climate it would be unwise to advertise for an apprentice, but its worth being aware how satisfying it can be, in case an opportunity turns up.   


Some background

 To protect children from paedophiles, anyone working with children in the UK is required to have a CRB certificate. This basically checks they have no record of child abuse. I got one for the workshops I ran with Nesta. Until a couple of years ago, different counties operated different schemes and they didn’t always recognise each other’s certificates. A national scheme was then launched, but this required not just people working with kids but anyone who had any contact with them to register. One estimate was that this represented a third of the entire population. Several authors, including Philip Pullman, complained that it was absurd that their occasional school visits now required a CRB check. Thanks to their efforts, the regulations have now been relaxed a bit.   

Schools are limited in what they can teach. Only subjects that can be presented to whole classes and then examined are suitable. Academic subjects are fine but it doesn’t really suit practical subjects. The UK school subject ‘Design Technology’ has always struggled to gain respect. There is less handling materials and tools than designing things on paper or computer, (which are then handed to a technician who ‘cuts’ the design on a laser cutter or CNC tool). Learning to use tools and make things is more naturally taught one to one. Kids traditionally learnt trades by apprenticeships, effectively one to one teaching. The demise of traditional apprenticeships left a gap. The UK skills and learning council are trying to fill this with ‘the diploma’. This is a new scheme to give ‘degree’ status to practical subjects. I don’t have any experience of it but many people are critical that there is too much class room  and not enough ‘hands on’. 



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