The Carpenters’ Company

A Tangible Vocation

Words Debika Ray

“The methods of teaching have changed, the content is evolving and the digital age has obviously had a huge impact,” says David Dowdles, principal of the Building Crafts College (BCC) in London. “But it hasn't been at the expense of craft skills.”

Since it was founded by The Carpenters’ Company in 1893, the BCC has been led by its mission to train young people in construction craft skills, while still evolving with the demands and opportunities of the modern world. “There’s a side of the BCC that goes back to the ancient livery companies,” says Dowdles. “And then there’s our work with companies in high-end industries that offer apprenticeships, who come to us to cherry pick-from our student body,” Dowdles says.

Skills, at the BCC, are understood in the broadest sense – the college offers evening and Saturday classes in wood-carving and furniture-making to those with no more than a keen interest in making, as well as a wide range of courses oriented at those seeking to make a career of it. These range from diplomas and NVQs in bench joinery, brickwork and stonemasonry, to apprenticeships under the UK government’s Plan for Jobs – a scheme that awards employers grants for hiring trainees with an emphasis on 16-24-year-olds on Universal Credit. “We are supporting the business community by providing access to a type of education that may otherwise not be available to some people,” Dowdles says.

At a time of economic uncertainty, the college has stepped up its work to secure its students’ futures, working closely with companies offering apprenticeships to create bespoke programmes that train people with the specialist knowledge they will need. “We want to give whoever comes through our doors not just training and qualifications but a destination, and we want employers to come to us because they recognise the high level of training they get through us,” Dowdles says.

Institutions offering practical courses have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but the BCC has found that interest in its programme has held up – sustained both by people looking for career development and those wanting to engage in tangible, hands-on activities at a time of digital overload. “A number of people are looking to us because they're asking themselves profound questions about what they want to be doing and wanting to get back to a more grounded, balanced way of living,” says Dowdles. The demand for an introduction to furniture-making course in November, he says, was “overwhelming” – something that bodes well given that the college remains staunchly committed to the value of face-to-face teaching. “A craftsperson handing on their skill to the next generation can’t be done remotely.”

Ultimately, Dowdles says, this is what remains the heart of the college’s offer, and what employers value: “One of the things I really enjoy at BCC is the level of craftsmanship of the staff who work here – they're very much at the top of their tree and many are practitioners in the outside world,” he says. “The success of the college is very much tied to the expertise of people delivering not just the subject content, but passing on their own individual skill.”

You can find out more about the BCC and the courses available by visiting the College’s website.