National Heritage Training Group: Training is the key to our industry

Cathie Clarke talks about her new job as general manager of the National Heritage Training Group (NHTG) … she never dreamt that a small dry stone walling project over a decade ago would lead to her rewarding role in the industry.

Way back in 2004, I was managing the Peak, Dales and Moorlands European Leader+ project, one strand of which was ‘Education’. Little did I know then, that one element of this project would develop my general interest in heritage building and lead to being involved in traditional building skills development on a national scale. So my career was triggered by a small but pioneering dry stone walling project that ultimately brought me to my role with the NHTG.

Earlier, in 2002, English Heritage, Historic Scotland and other national heritage agencies became increasingly concerned about the difficulty they were having finding people with the appropriate craft skills to repair and maintain the historic buildings in their care. Working together with the CITB, the partnership established the National Heritage Training Group, a voluntary organisation made up of industry experts and supported by a specialist team within the CITB, specifically to act as an umbrella body for the industry and to support the development of training and qualifications.

The NHTG was incorporated as a Limited Company in 2012, is still managed by a voluntary Board of Directors and receives funding from English Heritage, Historic Scotland and the CITB. The organisation provides a focal point for specialist contractors and others engaged in the heritage sector to identify and address gaps in practical skills and specialist knowledge. Our strategic role is to work with specialist federations and others to co-ordinate, assist and encourage their efforts in providing or facilitating appropriate training and to encourage the widespread recognition of achievable qualifications.

The long term objective of the NHTG is that all those working on traditional buildings have appropriate skills, knowledge and qualifications, and that these are demanded by the client base. We also want the sector to be valued as a worthwhile long term career prospect for all age groups.

Following extensive research that resulted in a series of reports, the NHTG has worked with its partners to develop a series of Heritage NVQ L3 qualifications and pathways supported by the creation of a Heritage CSCS card. Unfortunately, only a small number of existing craftspeople were able to access the new Heritage CSCS Card through Managed Industry Accreditation (previously referred to as Grandfather’s rights) prior to closure of this route in September 2010. Recession was in full force by then, and it has been an uphill struggle to encourage more craftspeople to achieve Heritage CSCS Card status when there is more focus on keeping heads above water and employees employed!

So, despite the development of new qualifications and courses, the gap between knowledge, skills, understanding, and capacity within the construction sector, things have not significantly improved. There are still daunting challenges ahead to tackle the huge deficit in knowledge created by an ever-changing curriculum in favour of cheap and easy house-building techniques over the skills and materials more suited to pre-1919 buildings. Mainstream construction courses do not include traditional building skills techniques and restrictive funding makes training opportunities difficult to access.

Once of the most difficult issues to deal with is the fact that a large majority of people working on traditional buildings ‘Don’t know what they don’t know’. This is a key feature of the 2013 report ‘Skills need analysis’ and is of course one of the hardest situations to deal with!

Access to information is a key weapon in the fight to improve general knowledge and specialist skills. A central role of the NHTG is to link together existing traditional building skills training activity across the UK, operate a central networking portal for the industry, and raise awareness of the importance of traditional building skills and materials to old building sustainability and promote training opportunities.

That is why we are developing a user-friendly Traditional Building Skills Training Directory through the new website: www.the-nhtg.org.uk. The website and directory are already up and running, but for the un-initiated, it is still difficult to find information on relevant courses and qualifications in traditional building skills. A new, quick and simple search facility will be available in the Spring of 2015, which will make courses and training accessible and easy to find. Don’t forget to sign up to our free monthly newsletter – click the link on any page of the website!

We want to see those working on heritage buildings take a critical look at their own skillset and to investigate the training needs of themselves and their employees. We want young people to realise and appreciate that there is a valuable and worthwhile career to be had in the built heritage sector. We want to make access to courses and qualifications as pain-free, accessible and affordable as possible.

We also want owners of traditional buildings to value them and understand that they have different repair and maintenance needs than modern buildings and we want them as clients, to have the knowledge and understanding to demand appropriate skills and materials from those contracted to work on them.
It’s a tall order, but we are ready for the challenge! Amongst other initiatives, new developments at Level 2 (GCSE) are in the pipeline, which we hope will open up heritage skills training to a much wider audience of contractors and provide greater opportunities for career progression.

My ‘To Do’ list for 2015 stretches to the horizon but there is so much scope for the NHTG to support this very special sector and I am so pleased to be in a position to put my passion for old buildings to good use.

Mel Russ

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