I read through the first minute book starting in 1898, when the school launched, and it was a pretty impressive document.
The opening of the school was part of the great revolution in adult education that followed the Technical Education Act of 1889, which allowed local authorities to charge a penny on the rates and to use it for training purposes.
The South London Technical Art School started in Kennington in 1879 and Goldsmith’s College in 1891. In fact, it was when Camberwell’s Vestry (the council) took over the art school and moved it to Peckham Road that the basis for launching an art school in Camberwell was in place. The money was given as a memorial to the artist Lord Leighton.
Peering into the minutes was like going back in time, learning about the difficulties of keeping naked models warm and the dim incandescent gas lights they used while they waited for electricity. The arts and crafts pioneer W. R. Lethaby was at the meetings, the lettering pioneer Edward Johnston was lecturing.
It was an exciting time, and especially as the central purpose was to intervene in the local trades and provide the training they needed. They had trouble with the plastering course, for example, until they found a trained plasterer to teach it, and then had to constantly subdivide the course to keep the numbers manageable. The house-painting course was also popular.
What I took away from the visit, apart from my research, was just how much the explosion in adult education, the means of training the working population during a period of great technological and social change, was handed over to the arts to fulfil. It was organised, and deliberately so, by creative people. That was the policy.
It was understood then, in a way that I don't think it is now, that creative people are necessary to the balance between technology and the arts. There is no point in training people to do coding if you don't teach them how to imagine solutions to problems, or how to make the interfaces look attractive enough to do their job effectively.
Unfortunately, we have handed over increasing swathes of our own technical education to people who think the future is about plugging people into online courses.
This is not a way to make the UK competitive in the future. So how come the Victorians knew that and we have forgotten it?
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