Emma Bridgewater: Pottery tycoon says UK skills crisis fuelled by university courses geared towards overseas students

Camilla Turner
Ceramics designer Emma Bridgewater photographed at home in Oxfordshire - Copyright ©Heathcliff O'Malley , All Rights Reserved, not to be published in any format without prior permission from copyright holder.

Her colourful crockery has become a staple in households across middle England and she has been been dubbed “the first lady of British homeware”.

As one of the biggest ceramics manufacturers to be based entirely in the UK, Emma Bridgewater has become a champion for British industry and an advocate for the need to inspire future generations of leaders in manufacturing.

But the pottery tycoon has warned that the country’s skills crisis is being fuelled by universities designing courses geared towards attracting overseas students, while vocational courses are drying up.

The Duchess of Cambridge speaks to ceramics manufacturer Emma Bridgewater

Rather than developing courses that train up the next generation of leaders in manufacturing, universities and colleges are focused on attracting foreign students who are “queuing up to get a British education”, she said. 

“A lot of vocational courses around manufacturing are evaporating - we are not training to future captains of industry,” she told The Telegraph.

“There’s a very significant lack of the right courses being devised. “I think that education is responding enormously for appetite among foreign students to come here. Foreign students outnumber [British students], particularly at arts schools in London.

Trainee Jenna Barcroft, at the Emma Bridgewater pottery factory, Stoke-on-Trent  - Credit: Martin Pope

“What I’ve heard my children’s contemporaries talk about is that courses are not really being tailored for them, they are increasingly tailored to foreign students. I think we are responding to foreign students queuing up to get a British education.”

Mrs Bridgewater, 51, said she is “not interested in protectionism”, adding:  “It is an amazing signal that people are flocking to train here, to learn here.

But alongside it what are we doing for our own future? What is our plan for our own manufacturing sector? How are we going to get the innovation and energy we need?”

She warned that the Government has not thought about the consequences of “turning its back” on the manufacturing sector, adding: “I think there is a massive snobbery and a group forgetting about where we have come from.”

This week the Chancellor unveiled his plans for the biggest overhaul of post-16 education in 70 years with a multibillion pound drive to improve vocational training.

Philip Hammond announced that the Government will put technical education on an equal footing with academic studies with the introduction of “T-levels”,  the technical version of A-levels, funded by more than £500 million a year.

Pottery worker Lisa Cooke demonstrates sponge decoration to British Prime Minister Theresa May and Stoke Central by-election candidate Jack Brereton, as they escorted by Emma Bridgewater (R) during a tour of the Emma Bridgewater pottery factory in Hanley - Credit: Reuters

But Mrs Bridgewater, who has been held up by the Prime Minister as an example of how British business will thrive in a post-Brexit world, said that enthusing young people about manufacturing must start much earlier than when they are 16.

She warned that as a country, we are “signally failing” to education children about the importance of factories and industry.

We need a generation of children interested in engineering and manufacturing,” she said. “It feels to me that children, as part of their education, should all get to look at what a manufacturing, recycling, landfill site looks like.”

Mrs Bridgewater, whose factory in Stoke-on-Trent regularly welcomes children for tours, said that more teachers should take their classes on school trips to local factories.

“A factory is one of the most positive things and hugely inspiring. You instinctively think of a factory as a dark, dirty oppressive place,” she said.

“Not so! It’s a collective process. Everyone of all ages is struck by the good nature, the collaboration. Children come out smiling and asking question. We need children to be enthused about engineering and we are signally failing in that.”

She said that in schools and universities there is an “absolute blankness and a sense that what I’m doing is so irrelevant. We need to sort out what we do about practical education. We’ve lost track of how to envisage and project practical careers."

Mrs Bridgewater,  who is also the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, set up her ceramics manufacturing business with her husband 1985 after she failed to find a suitable birthday present for her mother.

Her cheerful designs are thought to be a personal favourite of Theresa May, who gave out her mugs to Cabinet ministers for Christmas presents.

This week it emerged that design and technology GCSE has disappeared from nearly half of schools, according to a survey of head teachers.

A poll found that hundreds of schools across the country have axed the subject from the curriculum in the past year alone. 

"As an employer, all you long for is for people to have a broad education, the idea that they haven't done some making, some crafts, as well as the academic subjects is sad and it does reduce their usefulness in many ways," MrsBridgewater said. 

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