Building Traditional Skills

Kate Gunthorpe


  A trainee applies stencilled decoration
Lisa Ferguson was a painting and decorating trainee under the Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme with Angel Interiors Ltd, where she continues to work part-time (Photo: Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme) 

This article reviews recent initiatives to tackle shortages in traditional building skills.

Meeting the challenge

One in five buildings in the UK pre-dates 1919. The size of our traditionally constructed building stock creates a need for traditional building skills for the conservation, repair and maintenance of this built heritage.

The first organisations to respond to this challenge in England were English Heritage and CITB-ConstructionSkills, the sector skills council and industry training board for the construction industry. In 2003 these two organisations created the National Heritage Training Group (NHTG), a specialist skills development group with a UK-wide remit.

In 2005, the NHTG published Traditional Building Craft Skills: Assessing the Need, Meeting the Challenge, which quantified the scale of skills shortages and gaps. This report
and further research in 2008 showed that only around one third of the workforce then employed on pre-1919 buildings had the skills needed to work with traditional building materials. This skills gap is of particular concern as the research estimated that the repair and maintenance of traditional buildings accounts for nearly half the output of the construction industry.

In response to these concerns, a pioneering partnership was formed between Cadw, ConstructionSkills, English Heritage, NHTG and the National Trust, pooling resources, expertise and funding, to take action and meet these challenges. The Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme (TBSBS) for England and Wales was established against this backdrop in 2005 with the aim of addressing these gaps and shortages in traditional building skills.


Between 2006 and 2012 the TBSBS delivered a wide range of paid on-site training placements. The partner organisations worked together with the support of £1.7 million of Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) funding to deliver 138 placements.

A broad range of companies and organisations offered these upskilling placements. A contractor would act as a host for a trainee, who learned as he or she worked alongside experienced craftspeople. The trainees worked successfully with small and medium-sized companies and particularly effectively with sole traders, where a strong working relationship could develop between trainer and trainee.

The scheme, however, did face challenges. While some building skills such as stonemasonry, solid plastering and carpentry attracted plenty of placement providers and trainees, other skills such as traditional roofing, leadwork and fibrous plastering failed to attract placement providers or trainees. In part this may be due to these trades being perceived by practitioners as less heritagefocussed and consequently as trades which do not require specific conservation training to work on traditional buildings.

Overall, however, the scheme has been an outstanding success. From 2006 to 2012 the scheme covered a wide range of trades rather than a single discipline and was delivered across England and Wales with the cooperation of five main partners. Its success can be demonstrated both quantitatively, as the scheme exceeded the target number of placements, and qualitatively by the high standard of learning experience provided to the trainees by a wide range of placement providers.

  A trainee and a stonemason admire a recently completed stone repair  
  Building Traditional Skills Scheme trainee Martin Burgess (left), who is undertaking a 12-month stone-fixing placement with Heritage Consolidation (Photo: Building Traditional Skills)  

Simon Doyle, for example, undertook a 12-month placement with the TBSBS, followed by training with the National Heritage Ironwork Group (NHIG) bursary scheme. He has now set up a heritage blacksmiths company with a fellow ex-NHIG trainee, uniting the traditional skills and conservation awareness they have learned. He believes that his exposure to realistic situations and dilemmas that needed practical solutions through work-based training was beneficial: ‘I not only honed my blacksmithing skills, but I learned to deal with historic metalwork using a conservation approach, adapting my techniques as necessary’.

Alice Midmore, another trainee, has continued to develop her carpentry and joinery skills with two organisations, Handspring Designs in Sheffield and Felin Uchaf on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. Alice said: ‘This has given me training opportunities I wouldn’t normally have got. It’s given me the time to build up my skills and experience on a variety of projects’.

There were benefits for the placement providers as well. John Guest of Oxford Lime Mortars Ltd hosted a placement for trainee Oskar Newadzi who he now employs. John said: ‘Working with the scheme has helped my business select, recruit and support a trainee who I can invest time and effort in, which has in turn helped develop them and my company’. Following this positive experience, he has taken on another trainee under the Building Traditional Skills (BTS) scheme, which is now up and running.


In summer 2012, the TBSBS secured a further £760,000 of HLF funding which will enable it to continue until 2015 under a new banner, the Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme for Displaced Apprentices. It will target displaced apprentices throughout England and Wales who, in the current economic climate, no longer have host organisations where they can continue their training. It will include opportunities to work with and learn from the highly skilled and experienced National Trust and Cadw direct labour teams.

The lessons learned from the TBSBS have also been used to design the BTS scheme, which was launched in early 2012. The scheme aims to reach more potential participants with a wider range of opportunities. With £1.3 million of HLF funding this project is the largest and most complex project in the current HLF Skills for the Future Programme. The scheme is delivered by the NHTG through a network of regional coordinators in England. This means that the project can make the most of local knowledge and contacts, work closely with local companies and provide on-the-ground support to trainees and placement providers.

There are opportunities for 60 paid and supported site-based placements which follow the best practice model developed by the TBSBS. In addition, there is a range of opportunities from short introductory courses through to NVQ Level 4 senior crafts qualifications. The scheme supports the wide range of training and qualifications developed specifically for this sector including heritage specialist apprenticeships and foundation degrees in building conservation. There are also opportunities for experienced craftspeople from a mainstream construction background to qualify in ‘understanding the principles of repair and maintenance of traditional (pre-1919) buildings’ at NVQ Level 3 via two-day modular training courses.

Under this scheme, Aimee Henderson has embarked on a 12-month placement to achieve her NVQ Level 3 in Construction Site Management (Conservation). She is working with Heritage Project Management on Manchester’s Town Hall Complex Transformation Programme. Aimee says: ‘This is such an exciting project to work on, partly because of its scale and ambition but also because of the new challenges it is presenting me with, like justifying expenditure to important stakeholders or planning the work schedule for a whole team of people. I know I’ll leave the placement feeling far more confident as well as more professionally equipped for the real world’.


As with the Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme, the emphasis of the Building Traditional Skills scheme is on promoting the training and accreditation of a skilled workforce. To date, 44 per cent of trainees from the TBSBS have gained their NVQ Level 3 Diploma in Heritage Skills. By successfully completing a health and safety test, trainees can then go on to gain their Heritage Skills Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card. Building surveyors and other professionals procuring conservation, repair and maintenance work on traditional buildings who ask for this card (for example at the pre-qualification questionnaire stage) can reduce the risks that come with contractor selection. It gives the professional team and their clients proof that a contractor has the right skills to work on traditional buildings and has achieved the appropriate standards in their work.

  A female stonemason at work
  Alex Rose-Deacon working at Gloucester Cathedral: after gaining an advanced diploma in stonemasonry at the Building Crafts College, Stratford, and a 12-month placement at Gloucester Cathedral, she is now a full-time member of the Cathedral Works Department. (Photo: Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme)

The partners in both schemes are committed to promoting equality and diversity in the sector. While women make up just two per cent of the labour force in hands-on construction, the TBSBS granted 15 per cent of its placements to women. However, it has failed to attract significant numbers of ethnic minority candidates, with only 3 per cent of trainees from outside the home countries and 0.6 per cent being non-white. To ensure the sector draws from the widest possible pool of talent BTSS is launching a more proactive and focussed marketing campaign at regional level. It aims to provide 15 per cent of its bursaries to women and 5 per cent to ethnic minorities.

It is too early to make a meaningful analysis of BTS performance in this area but there are some interesting opportunities developing. In Stratford, London, the scheme is working with the Building Crafts College on delivering introductory courses for a local women’s group. In the North West, the scheme is working with the Bolton All Souls Project to offer opportunities among the predominantly Muslim local community.


Reflecting on the TBSBS, Clara Willett, the scheme manager, commented: ‘We are now seeing the success of the scheme through the achievements of the trainees. Not only are they gaining excellent work experience, but 78 per cent of them carry on working in the heritage sector and over half of them have gained their Heritage Skills NVQ. This is great news for these individuals and the sector’.

The success of these schemes is due in large part to the partnership established between the leading heritage organisations, the support of the HLF and the commitment of placement providers in a difficult economic climate.

At the centre of this are the keen and highly motivated individuals who have an opportunity to learn and develop skills that will stand them in good stead for their future careers. The more trainees who acquire these skills, the safer the future of our precious built heritage.


Further information

Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme for Displaced Apprentices

National Heritage Training Group Building Traditional Skills scheme

Traditional Building Skills Bursary Scheme Evaluation Report 2012


The Building Conservation Directory, 2013


KATE GUNTHORPE MRICS MCIOB BCAS is a senior building surveyor at English Heritage.

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