Project inspires schools about creative futures

School pupils from across Stoke-on-Trent have been getting hands on with clay in a bid to close the skills gap in the creative industries.

Pupils form Thistley Hough Academy pictured with Professor Neil Brownsword

There’s been a disconnect with people working with clay in the region and I think it’s really important to expose this age group to working with such a fabulous material.

Neil Brownsword, Professor of Ceramics

DesignLab Nation is a national secondary schools programme run by the V&A Museum which aims to inspire the next generation of designers, makers and innovators across the country, and to help young people develop the essential skills for the workplace of the future.

Five successful partnerships were established in total with each region championing a different design discipline, including textiles, vehicle design, gaming, metalwork, glass and ceramics.

In 2018 the V&A teamed up with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (PMAG) in Stoke-on-Trent - the home of British ceramics. Focussing on the theme of Perfection vs Imperfection, year 10 pupils from across the city have been challenged to embrace the mistakes and flaws as they work through a range of creative processes.

Students from Birches Head Academy, The Co-operative Academy and Thistley Hough Academy have been working with Staffordshire University Professor Neil Brownsword, a ceramicist, installation artist and former V&A artist-in-residence.

Neil said: “There’s been a disconnect with people working with clay in the region and I think it’s really important to expose this age group to working with such a fabulous material.

“It’s been great to engage pupils with all aspects of what ceramics can be – through its social and historic context alongside experimentation through making.”

Working with Neil and museum professionals, students undertook ceramic experiments using moulds, hand building and plaster casting. During one exciting session, students were asked to collect waste pottery from a shraff tip at Middleport canal side factories, which they then used as inspiration for their own designs.

Natasha Blakemore, a pupil from Thistley Hough Academy, said: “It’s been quite an experience doing lots of different things and visiting different places. It’s been fun and exciting!

“It’s really interesting to find out about all the different styles and how it’s been done in the past. A lot of my dad’s side of the family worked in the potteries so it’s nice to be carrying on the family tradition!”

To learn about the project’s main material (clay), students have visited local businesses including the Potclays factory, Johnsons Tiles and Heraldic Pottery. They also visited the V&A’s Ceramics collections, Cast Courts and Sackler courtyard.

The schools then worked with Neil to bring together their research to create a ceramic vessel at Staffordshire University’s specialist facilities and view the final year work of Art and Design students. 

Bryony Jackson, Education Officer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, said: “The aim of the project is to inspire a generation to go into further education or a future career by seeing a working artist.

“It has been great to carry out such in-depth work with these schools over a period of time. To be able to come to Staffordshire University has been amazing because they’ve seen the brilliant resources and the graduate exhibition, so they can see the next steps and what they could achieve.”

Neil added: “Some children haven’t been outside of Stoke-on-Trent and a lot have never been to London so it’s really important to get them in a space like the V&A.

“They have made some absolutely brilliant work. It’s been fab to get them into the university and connect them with what can be achieved through a creative education and a future career in art and design’.

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