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
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
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
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’.