Practice Makes Perfect

A New Approach to Skills Training

Jonathan Taylor


  Historic building shrouded in scaffolding, protective sheets and temporary roofing
  The National Trust’s restoration of the orangery at Tyntesfield is
providing a unique training ground for students and members of
the public

Approximately one in five buildings in the UK predates 1914. Most of these buildings are traditionally constructed with solid walls built with lime-based mortars. As these structures are vulnerable to being damaged by modern repair techniques, it is vital for their survival that the workforce employed to repair them has the skills and expertise required. However, most construction colleges and training centres focus on the construction skills required for new buildings. The specialist skills required for stonemasonry and traditional brickwork are taught in only a handful of colleges, and many skills required for historic building work are unavailable through either the NVQ system or the new Qualifications and Credit Framework, which are geared to meet the needs of industry and large employment groups such as house builders.

The traditional method of teaching practical skills is through apprenticeships, an approach that lends itself well to teaching repair skills. It is difficult to teach a student in a classroom to ‘read’ the fabric of an old structure and, no matter how good the course, there is no substitute for on-site training. Appropriate repair techniques also vary widely from case to case according to condition and construction, something that is best learned in the field.

The UK construction industry largely abandoned the apprenticeship training system in the 1970s and ’80s. Some of the larger specialist conservation firms have continued to take on apprentices, who have either completed their college training or who are still in college but on a day-release programme. However, the numbers attaining the standards required by this route are limited, and the additional cost of carrying apprentices can make the best companies less competitive, particularly if the competitive tendering process focuses on price rather than on quality and value. Much has been written recently about the decline in traditional craft skills, and research by the National Heritage Training Group (NHTG)1 has given some insight into the scale of the problem in finding skilled craftspeople for the repair of historic buildings. It is clear that new initiatives are required if we are to continue to maintain our traditional building stock.


A scheme piloted by the National Trust at Tyntesfield near Bristol is one of the most exciting training developments in recent years. Ten trainee stonemasons from City of Bath College are engaged in the conservation and repair of a fine Victorian orangery as part of their architectural stone conservation NVQ in Heritage Skills level 3. The orangery had been derelict for at least 20 years, with all the classic masonry problems associated with weathering and rusting metal cramps. Working alongside stone conservators from Nimbus Conservation, the trainees are gaining hands-on experience in the practicalities of conservation.

  A trainee in a hard hat and high-visibility vest carries out masonry repairs  
  Jackie Blackman, a student from City of Bath College preparing to insert a stainless steel rod to fix gable masonry at the Tyntesfield orangery for her NVQ level 3 (Photo: Nigel Bryant)  

The scheme was the idea of the National Trust. From the outset the aim was to integrate training into a programme of restoration and repair, and an education officer was appointed to see how this could be achieved. The orangery provided the ideal vehicle both for short courses aimed at the public, schools and, if possible, professional conservators too. By good fortune the proposal coincided with the development of a new course in masonry conservation at City of Bath College. Stonemasonry was already well established at the college with courses to NVQ level 3, and for the previous three years trainees on its courses had regularly worked with the Bath Building Preservation Trust to gain practical experience. The conservation course was a natural development, and the prospect of offering it in conjunction with work for the National Trust on a Grade II* listed building was unprecedented.

When the National Trust invited tenders for the restoration of the orangery, conservation companies were required to allow for the provision of on-site training as part of their bid. Nimbus Conservation, a specialist stonemasonry company with a long track record of training its own masonry conservators, won the contract for the threeyear programme of conservation, restoration and training.

The architectural stone conservation course commenced in September 2010 and is open to stonemasons with NVQ to level 2 or an equivalent qualification. The NVQ level 3 is awarded by the National Heritage Training Group. The syllabus is designed to provide the specialist skills and understanding required to work on historic masonry projects, and assessment is based on the ability of the trainees to demonstrate the key competencies covered by the course, including:

  • conservation ethics
  • lime technologies
  • mortar repairs
  • stone decay
  • cleaning techniques
  • stone carving and replacement
  • taking details, model making and casting
  • compiling and writing conservation reports
  • health and safety.

The course includes areas not specifically required for the NVQ such as poulticing, lime shelter coats, and resin technology, including the use of resins for dot fixing broken fragments.

The course lasts 30 weeks, with one day each week spent at Tyntesfield and one day at the college, either in the workshop or attending seminars. The project was supported by the National Trust’s on-site skills supervisor working closely with the building surveyor. Assessment is continuous, with on-site competencies judged by the three parties involved; the National Trust’s surveyor for the project, Nimbus Conservation’s site manager and the NVQ assessor.

The programme is the first of its kind in the UK and has successfully completed its first year, with all but one of its students attaining their architectural stone conservation NVQ in Heritage Skills level 3. In October 2011 the programme won the first English Heritage Angel Award.


Eight trainee blacksmiths have been working on the conservation of one of the most famous examples of Baroque wrought ironwork in Britain, Tijou’s screen in the gardens of Hampton Court Palace.

Like traditional masonry, historic wrought ironwork is quite unlike any modern equivalent, requiring a very distinct skill set for its conservation. In recent years the supply of skills has largely relied on one blacksmithing course, at Hereford College of Technology, which provides block release training and works closely with the few specialist firms with the resources to train their craftspeople. Chris Topp and Co for example has regularly sent trainees from its Yorkshire base to train in Hereford.

Despite the strategic importance of the block release course at Hereford to the maintenance of the craft skills required, funding for the course was withdrawn by the Skills Funding Agency in 2010 because the craft skill requirements had not been officially recognised by a ‘national occupational standard’. Spurred by the imminent threat of closure, two key developments followed.

Firstly, working closely with the newly formed National Heritage Ironwork Group (NHIG), ConstructionSkills stepped in to help assess the skill requirements, paving the way for developing a Heritage Skills NVQ level 3 in blacksmithing.

  A heritage ironwork student in a high-visibility vest flame cleans an ornate ironwork screen  
  Adrian Wolfe, an NHIG student, flame cleaning a section of the Hampton Court screen to expose the condition of the underlying metalwork (Photo: Bethan Griffiths)  

Secondly, the NHIG set about the task of establishing a new course which would qualify for funding under the present regime. With the support of Historic Royal Palaces and Hereford College of Technology, NHIG submitted a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) under it’s Skills for the Future programme. The result was the Heritage Blacksmithing Bursary which commenced in May 2011 and is to run for two years.

The bursary enables eight trainee blacksmiths each year to broaden their skills and develop a better understanding of the philosophy and ethics of conservation. The programme provides one year of full time training and includes a five week block release course at Hereford College of Technology and a series of work placements, the first of which is at Hampton Court Palace. Here they are gaining practical experience of ironwork conservation and holding repair work under the supervision of a specialist conservator from Hall Conservation. Further placements include working in museum environments and in selected blacksmiths’ workshops.

On completion of the bursary programme, trainees who are able to demonstrate the competency standards required are awarded the NHIG Award for Blacksmithing Conservation. As the competencies are based on the ‘national occupational standards’ defined by ConstructionSkills for Heritage skills level 3 blacksmithing, the award represents a substantial proportion of the NVQ level 3 model.

Currently NHIG is working with other organisations to develop a sustainable funding model for work-based training at NVQ level 3 and above which will provide the traditional blacksmithing skills required.


The idea of using conservation projects as vehicles for specialist craft training is not new. What makes the Tyntesfield programme unique is that it is essentially an ordinary restoration project with a small but extremely effective training element. Each year, just 30 days are given over to training, and even then conservation work continues. Yet out of this small commitment, 10 stonemasons make the transition to specialists in conservation as a result of the liaison with Bath City College.

Many more specialists could benefit from this type of project. A quick leaf through the pages of The Building Conservation Directory illustrates the huge variety of specialist skills required for the conservation and repair of the UK’s historic buildings. Specialist blacksmithing may have been plucked from the brink, but many other crafts are under threat.

Any conservation project which is likely to qualify for an HLF grant, and which involves significant elements of stone roofing, leaded light windows, or any type of earth walling for example, should be considered as potential training grounds for specialist trainees.

HLF’s Skills for the Future programme is now closed, although its trustees have indicated they will make further strategic investment; meanwhile, the principal source of HLF assistance for the conservation of historic buildings is through Heritage Grants. To qualify for this type of assistance, proposals are required to ‘help people to learn about their own and other people’s heritage’. This is the only requirement applying to all proposals, and it is an extremely important one. Introducing a training element can satisfy this requirement and make a vital contribution to the survival of key skills.



1 The NHTG has published a series of reports analysing demand, supply and training provision in traditional building craft skills for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland: see



The Building Conservation Directory, 2012


JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.

This article was prepared with the help of Nigel Bryant of City of Bath College, Bethan Griffiths of the National Heritage Ironwork Group, Jo Reilly of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and the National Trust.

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