As part of the Skills theme of our Sector Resilience Interview series, we heard from Nicola Duncan-Finn, Head of Heritage Skills at English Heritage, all about the development of the organisation’s skills programme.
Read on to find out more.
Nicola, tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the heritage sector.
I was appointed as English Heritage’s first Head of Heritage Skills in Summer 2023. I am delighted to be leading on the development of our new programme of work to support the sustainability and growth of specialist heritage craft and building skills, aligned to our ongoing programme of conservation at the historic sites we care for across England, and to help support the skills needed for the future across the heritage sector.
Why is this work important to English Heritage and the wider sector?
English Heritage cares for over 400 historic monuments and properties across England, on behalf of the nation. These sites span 6 millennia and range from world famous prehistoric sites, to grand medieval castles, and from Roman forts through to a Cold War bunker. This remarkable and varied National Heritage Collection embodies an exemplary pedigree of heritage craftsmanship in its surviving fabric, which is woven into sites over centuries by committed craftspeople, including bricklayers, carpenters, flint workers and glaziers to name but a few. But the collective energy, creative talents and technical skills that have filtered down through the ‘heads, hearts and hands’ of successive generations is dwindling. Indeed, we have reached the point where a worrying pattern of skills loss and multi-generational skills gaps are being reported across various traditional crafts nationally, and the sector is understandably concerned about the increasing vulnerability of our national ecosystem for heritage skills. The rich golden thread of heritage skills that has traditionally connected the National Heritage Collection to our wider historic built environment and which has supported the preservation of heritage sites across the country is beginning to incrementally fray.
Without action, it has been predicted that the sector’s current heritage craft skills workforce will be unable to meet the future projected need for ongoing maintenance, conservation, climate adaptation and carbon reduction initiatives over the next decade. From our own experience of caring for the National Heritage Collection, where we spend in excess of £25m annually on conservation maintenance and projects, we are finding it increasingly challenging to procure some traditional crafts. Notably traditional flint-working (working with flint stones) and mill-writing (repairing windmills) are now both classified as Critically Endangered Craft Skills on the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts.
Looking forward, we must acknowledge that the long-term survival and resilience of the UK’s intergenerational craft skills, and their ability to continue to transcend the past and connect the present to the future, will be dependent on the collective actions we take across the sector over the next 10 years.
Valuable knowledge sharing and collaborative working across the sector has already begun to ramp thanks to the formation of such fora as the Historic Environment Skills Forum (an action prioritised by the Historic Environment Forum’s Heritage Sector Resilience Plan). English Heritage wants to play our part in supporting this work to ensure that heritage skills continue to not only ‘survive’ but to ‘thrive’ for future generations.
The National Heritage Collection comprises a huge variety of heritage properties requiring care and appropriate skills. Image (c) English Heritage
How are you developing your new Heritage Skills Programme?
Following engagement with sector colleagues, we’re developing a model with three key components that we feel will be crucial to sustaining the specialist heritage skills needed to continue conserving the National Heritage Collection and the wider heritage sector in the future:
- Inspire – it’s never too early to spark the imaginations of the next generation of guardians for our historic environment. Building on our existing youth engagement work and learning opportunities, we want to inspire and engage school children, to encourage them to consider the idea of a future working in the heritage sector. Our Conservation in Action programme has also provided us with exciting opportunities to give families and communities the chance to try their hand at specialist heritage skills and to understand what it takes to care for the historic sites in our care.
- Promote – we want to work in partnership with training providers and local community heritage groups, to engage and inspire further education students training for careers in the construction trade – so that they have the opportunity to explore traditional heritage skills at the historic sites that we care for and to consider this as a potential career path. To help coordinate how our sector seeks to engage young people, we also want to support the development of Regional Heritage Skills Networks, working alongside local partners to help map skills needs in each area and drawing upon insights from our experience of caring for the National Heritage Collection across different parts of the country and the experiences of other partners.
- Grow – subject to securing the necessary funding, we want to launch a pilot programme in East Anglia – to create new training pathways to help preserve the endangered skill of flint working – which is crucial to the preservation of the many historic sites across the region and the wider south east that are built from flint. This would include giving trainees and apprentices the opportunity to develop these specialist skills caring for the remarkable properties that form part of the National Heritage Collection. We also have strong ambitions to develop a wider national English Heritage network of Heritage Craft Skill Apprenticeship Training Roles and specialist training hubs at some of our sites. Opportunities to incorporate an externally facing flexible apprenticeship training strand, delivered in partnership with organisations that share our commitment to providing transformational career opportunities and industry-leading training, is also under review.
How can colleagues support the efforts or get involved?
If after reading this article and you or the organisation you are working with would be interested in finding our more about English Heritage’s new Heritage Skills Programme and exploring possible opportunities to work collaboratively with us on this important initiative, please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Overall, what do you think is most crucial for ensuring a resilient heritage sector?
Given the scale of the challenge we are facing, it is only by working together collaboratively that will we be able to ensure the sustainability of traditional heritage skills and to keep them alive for future generations.
This Sector Resilience interview was shared by Nicola Duncan-Finn as part of our Heritage Sector Resilience Plan activities.
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