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A Magazine for Sheffield

Freeman College.

Today I heard about someone coming to Sheffield and being transformed. Literally, fundamentally changed. That's not an expression people use lightly, outside of advertising hype or religious mania. You may know someone who really ought to know about this, or you may want to see for yourself. It all started in the 1980s with a guy called Aonghus Gordon (No, that's not misspelled and no, he's not on Wikipedia, I checked!) He had a background in teaching and crafts which led him to found something called the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust. Six years ago its unique approach quietly stepped into Sheffield. You may not have noticed Freeman College, located in Sterling Works among the former silversmith and cutlery workshops which the council calls our 'Cultural Industries Quarter'. If you step inside, you will find metalwork, jewellery and other hand-crafted wares of extremely high quality which would make memorable gifts. Freeman College teaches traditional skills, ranging from copperspinning to archery, from felt-making to book-binding. These are solid, practical skills that require time-served expert tutors, many from the former Sheffield industries. But what is surprising is that they are perfected here by people who, almost certainly, left school with little more than a sense of inadequacy. That's because the college caters for young people with learning difficulties and developmental delay. It produces a dramatic leap in their personal, emotional, and social skills, and even their health. Something about learning the patience and determination to produce a beautiful object from raw natural materials seems to open a door within our human consciousness. Parents and students use expressions like 'personal transformation' to describe the work of the college and its effect on confidence and life-skills. Next door to the college, Butcher Works is a hive of activity, including a colony of craft-people's workshops where students can gain work experience. Called 'The Academy of Makers', this mutually supportive collection of talented people continue the city's heritage of hand-manufacturing. There's a gift shop, a bakery and Fusion Café, offering beautiful organic food and probably the best coffee in Sheffield. Believe me, I've researched this. Elsewhere around Sheffield the trust has a farm near Eyam, a centre for gardening and woodland crafts at Stannington, a school and a theatre. There are also additional centres around England and Wales. This means that they can offer a wide range of courses for 16-25 year olds, personalised for each student over three years. One proud parent told me that her shy autistic son had become a confident, capable adult with a social life for the first time through learning things like iron age forging, archery and letterpress printing. "Not your conventional curriculum," she said. Don't get the impression that these are just ancient skills. The workers are down-to-earth, welcoming and grounded people who know how to make a difference in people's lives. If you know someone who may benefit, please tell them about the college and the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust which runs it. And if you find yourself around Arundel Street, fancying a snack or on the lookout for anything from a greetings card to a silver trophy, it's well worth a look in. That's all for this month, but if you're reading this before 9th June, don't forget Peace In The Park. Sheffield's brilliant one-day pop-up free festival is happening again this year. They welcome volunteers and good vibrations, beforehand and on the day. Details of this, all the local festivals and alternative stuff is on Alt-Sheff as usual. )

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