As the world’s greatest museum of art and design – a ‘schoolroom for everyone’, as described by our founding Director, Henry Cole – the V&A has an essential role to play in the nation’s creative education. When the museum was founded in 1837, its primary aim was to improve arts education and, in turn, contribute to the creative economy of the country.
In 2018, this founding mission has never felt more relevant. With the UK creative industries worth £10.5 million an hour, the UK creative economy is growing at a faster rate than the rest of the UK economy. However, on the other hand creative education is in crisis. Students’ uptake of Design & Technology at GCSE level has dropped a staggering 57% since 2010. This poses a massive skills shortage to the UK’s world-leading creative industries.
‘There is a very worrying decline in the take-up of creative subjects in state schools.’ – Grayson Perry RA, Artist
As a leading national institution, at the V&A it is our responsibility to act nationally and support design education across the UK. In 2017, the V&A Schools team launched DesignLab Nation our National Schools Programme. Through this three-year initiative, we are aiming to inspire the next generation of designers across the country, and to help young people develop the essential skills for the workplace of the future – including critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.
At the start of the programme we decided we wanted to support areas where young people face the most barriers in entering creative industries. Based on targeted research, we selected our five regional areas – Blackburn, Coventry, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland – all areas with a rich industrial heritage, but now with the lowest numbers of students selecting to take D&T at the GCSE level. As a northerner, I was particularly excited to build working partnerships with regional museums, secondary schools, designers and creative industries we aim to expand the reach of the V&A’s Learning programmes and collections.
In each project, each school class (approx. 30 D&T students, aged 11 – 16) works with a designer invested in the local design industry and heritage. Along with regional museum professionals, students are led through in-depth projects including practical hands-on experiences and design challenges. Working to a live brief, students take part in four workshop days that include a visit to their local museum, a visit to the V&A, and visits to local design practices. As part of the programme we also deliver continuing professional development (CPD) events for regional networks of teachers.
As with our other V&A Learning Programmes, we really want to showcase the importance of object-based learning, to support students to develop a more rounded understanding of, and approach to, design. Therefore, the V&A has decided to lend prominent designed objects to our museum partners, to be used alongside regional collections to inspire students and act as a focus for the school projects.
In the pilot year (academic year 2017/18) of the programme we partnered with regional museums, schools, designer and teachers in Blackburn and Coventry.
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery and print designer Sarah Hardacre ran DesignLab Nation projects with local Secondary Schools, Darwen Aldridge Community Academy (DACA) and Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (QEGS). Sarah set a Pattern Design challenge for students, asking them to produce patterned surfaces to upcycle garments and interiors. The students used the 20th-century textiles from the V&A, on loan at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, as starting points for their projects and designs. These textiles, including key pieces by Lucienne Day and Tibor Reich.
In Coventry, the V&A partnered with Coventry Transport Museum and textile artist Julia Snowdin to run DesignLab Nation projects with local Secondary schools, The Westwood Academy and Coundon Court. Julia set students a challenge to create innovative textile designs that solved transport-related problems. They took inspiration from seven loaned V&A objects that demonstrated key design principles considered by vehicle designers, such as aerodynamics, style, and the use of hard and soft materials. These objects included the work of such key designers as Ray and Charles Eames and Robert Foster. Students decided to address a range of needs – from practical women’s fashions for riding a motorcycle, to the risk of obstructed vision caused by rain on a crash helmet.
I am now looking forward to working with the museum teams in Blackburn and Coventry as we enter Year 2 of the project, as well as our new partners in Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent and Sunderland. As we broaden the programme, I’m excited to see the benefits of DesignLab Nation spread further and wider. I think one of my main challenges, which I am keen to tackle, is to find ways of maintaining the networks and energy built up through the partnerships – bringing legacy to the programme, and so supporting the future of design education on a national level.