IHBC Yearbook 2011

r e v i e w 19 Nigel Gervis demonstrating the application of hemplime plaster at the IHBC West Midlands Branch Day School at Acton Scott (Photo: Debbie Boffin) SKILLS REVIEW John Preston, IHBC Education Secretary What is the best context for promoting built heritage conservation skills and training in uncertain times? Conservation is seen as a niche activity; for years, English Heritage (EH), Historic Scotland, the IHBC and others have worked to establish it as a discipline recognised among the traditional professions. EH launched its requirement for conservation accreditation at the 2001 IHBC School (‘Setting Standards’). These accreditation requirements, for grant aid only, had a very limited reach even before the current financial crisis. Meanwhile, the professions felt challenged by the government’s approach to vocational qualifications, which is based on competitiveness, growth and meeting the needs of employers. The problem is that their skills needs and the resulting ‘national occupational standards’ are defined through Sector Skills Councils in which large employers take the lead. It is a particularly acute problem for conservation, which is spread across the public and private sectors but forms only a very small part of the activity of larger employers in either sector. Furthermore, conservation cuts across the remits of at least nine Sector Skills Councils. Its end product, in terms of work on buildings, falls within the construction sector (ConstructionSkills) but its underpinning philosophy is cultural (Creative & Cultural Skills) and its regulatory role is governmental. EH works closely with both ConstructionSkills and an independent body, the National Heritage Training Group (NHTG) which also plays a significant role. In 2009 the NHTG announced a Sector Skills Agreement with ambitious aims, including efforts to introduce accreditation in the private sector through working ‘towards a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) carded workforce by 2010, including the CSCS Heritage Skills and Professional Qualified Persons cards for those working on all built heritage projects and sites’,1 but how many reading this have heard of, let alone hold, a CSCS card? EH and Historic Scotland’s work with ConstructionSkills has provided valuable research. We now know much more about the state of the industry and skills needs (at least before the economic downturn), but there has been no progress in relation to a fundamental problem. There remains no clear body of employers, and defined employer needs, to give critical mass for conservation within the Sector Skills context. Local government employers have not been brought into the mix; EH and Historic Scotland have seen themselves as regulators, overlooking their scope for taking a lead as employers, setting standards for their own workforces and so indirectly for others doing similar work. Without these developments and without agreed standards of service delivery, there has been little prospect of making an impact in the local government skills context. Without effective regulation there is even less scope for driving up standards in the private sector. Without these foundations, what can be done to sustain skills levels or the courses needed to provide them? Given this bleak picture even before the credit crunch, what hopes exist for the future? How can conservation make a better case for relevance in a new landscape? As Sir Neil Cossons said back in 2002: ‘We are finished if, as happens with many professional organisations, we turn inward upon ourselves, find it comfortable to talk to each other and forget about talking to the outside world.2 Now it’s even more vital that we combine conservation skills with generic skills (including people skills and project management) promoted by The Egan Review (2004) and which are, through the World Bank’s standards, intrinsic to the IHBC’s own competences. Might the government’s promotion of apprenticeships help overcome the longstanding conservation catch-22 of not being able to get a job without experience, or experience without a job? Perhaps above all, we need to shift mindsets from the challenges of the past to those of the future. Could the greatest opportunity be the twin challenges of climate change and peak oil? In dealing with both, the emphasis must necessarily switch towards the small and the local, including adapting existing buildings. Understanding and having the necessary skills to refurbish traditional buildings will be vital. How about starting with IHBC branches and the NHTG’s regional Building Skills Action Groups working together? John Preston, education@ihbc.org.uk 1 ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Maintaining Standards and Best Practice in the Built Heritage Sector in England’, www. ihbc.org.uk/recent_papers/docs/MOU%20 for%20Built%20Heritage%20Sector%20in%20 England%202009.pdf 2 N Cossons, ‘Time for Shared Outlooks and Common Ground’, Agenda for the 21st Century, Oxford Planning and the Historic Environment Conference 2002, www.ihbc.org. uk/recent_papers/docs/PATHE2002/cussons/ page2.html