Beauty and the Bathroom!
By Simon Reddy
I left school in the early 1980s against a social backdrop of riots, recession and political turmoil. There were over three million people unemployed, so like many of today’s working class school leavers, I took a full-time course in Further Education. After successfully graduating with building technician qualifications, things were still ‘grim up north’, so I moved to Devon in search of work. Away from home and aged 18, I started as a plasterer’s labourer, which led to a plumbing apprenticeship. Under the guidance of an experienced craftsman, I completed City & Guilds craft and advanced craft certificates in plumbing and went on to set up my own plumbing business, undertaking all types of domestic plumbing work.
During the 1990s I was asked by the local college to teach plumbing. I felt it a privilege to be approached by the lecturers who had taught me and duly accepted. Although I taught full-time as a section head, most of my teaching career was part-time, whilst running my own small plumbing business. This worked very well, because working ‘on the tools’ allowed me to keep up to date with new technologies and regulations that were fast emerging throughout the Building Services Engineering sector.
From the earliest stage in my plumbing career I always thought it important to be recognised as a craft professional, so I joined what is now known as the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE), and in 2001 achieved Master Plumber status. Being a Master Craftsman is part of my identity, and with it comes a pledge to inspire and motivate others who are engaged in craft learning. Moreover, ‘Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake’, which is central to the aesthetic values inherent in vocational occupations (Sennett, 2008, 9).
However, today we have social and economic conditions that stand in the way of the craftsman’s discipline, as skills are often perceived merely as instrumental to economic growth, and apprentices are ‘schooled’ within a narrowly technical curriculum. From my own experience, this reductionist approach to vocational education and training manifests itself in the incompetent workmanship I regularly encounter. Perhaps these social forms, in the shape of poorly installed pipe-work and leaking sanitary fittings, represent the substance of our 21st century vocational culture (Geertz, 2000).
Plumbing qualifications, and perhaps contemporary craft-based vocational culture in general, have failed to embrace aesthetic values that have existed for millennia. Notions of beauty are now latent and play little part in learning activities, which are assessed dichotomously as ‘competent’ or ‘not yet competent’. This approach deprives the ‘maker’ of the distinction of the masterpiece and constricts opportunities for creative and innovative learning. But creating beauty is an important aspect of craft engineering and it is embedded in all aspects of work, even unblocking drains! It’s about the sense of wellbeing that is experienced when you contribute to making someone’s living space healthy and safe. After all, the provision of wholesome water, sanitation and heating has made plumbing the cornerstone of all civilisations and is essential to a nation’s prosperity.
In Germanic culture this sense of a job well done is known as ‘arbeitsfreude’, or ‘joy in work’. This concept requires a certain amount of alchemy on behalf of the plumber, converting jobs of low social status. such as unblocking drains, into something valuable that contributes to the health and wellbeing of society. Although the points I raise here may seem romantic, they chime with the sentiments of Lorna Unwin (2009, 3) who argues that: ‘the development of meaningful, high quality vocational education is vital for social justice and social cohesion, as well as for economic wellbeing, a term that may now have much more relevance than economic growth’.
Thus, in conclusion, I have been inspired to participate in the ‘development’ of vocational education and training by undertaking a PhD in Education, at Exeter University. Using the plumbing industry as a case study, I hope to gain a better understanding of vocational pedagogy from the perspective of plumbing apprentices in college and in work. I look forward to sharing the outcomes of this study soon, and hope to make a valid contribution to both the field of vocational education and to the craft of plumbing.
Geertz, C. (2000) The Interpretation of Cultures, New York, Basic Books.
Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman, London, Penguin.
Unwin, L. (2009) Sensuality, Sustainability and Social Justice: vocational education in changing times. An inaugural professorial lecture, London: Institute of Education.
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