In September 2014 a revised national curriculum for Design and Technology (D&T) came into effect for 5 to 14 year olds. Its development had been long and tortuous. It included an initial threat to remove the subject from the National Curriculum and a disastrous version, drafted by the Department for Education (DfE), which took the subject back to a make-do-and-mend, craft activity from the 1950s. After much campaigning and lobbying, the DfE eventually tasked the Design and Technology Association and the Royal Academy of Engineering to provide them with advice on the new content. In the end this advice was accepted and implemented with no significant changes.
So we have in place a D&T curriculum that, from age 5, requires pupils to design and make products using a variety of materials, to take risks and demonstrate creativity and innovation, to work in a range of different contexts and to draw on disciplines such as mathematics, science, engineering, computing and art. In Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) the curriculum specifies pupils should use computer-aided design and manufacture and have the ability to embed intelligence in the products they design and make by using programmable components. Currently D&T GCSE and A-level qualifications are being revised to ensure a smooth progression for those pupils who want to continue to study the subject after age 14.
Missing the point
But we have a problem – or rather, we have a series of problems. Firstly, the subject is often invisible. Ministers never refer to it when talking about STEM and when they do talk about ‘technology’ they usually mean computing. This is disappointing but not surprising because, and this is the nub of the problem, D&T is still a widely misunderstood and misrepresented subject. For too many people, including ministers, employers, admissions tutors and parents, it is still perceived as the subject they probably studied when they were at school – woodwork or metalwork. In reality it is the subject which can put the T and E into STEM and does it in curriculum time, not as part of extra-curricular, enhancement and enrichment activities. It is the subject that can help attract the next generation of designers and engineers. This is not making a case for D&T to replace either maths or physics, far from it, but for many pupils it can provide a practically based route into design and engineering which contextualises and gives meaning to maths and physics knowledge.
Secondly, uncertainty about the future of the subject during the curriculum review has discouraged potential secondary D&T teachers from applying for Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses. So much so that in September 2015 there are at least 1,200 fewer teachers in the system than are needed. That’s a vacancy in every third secondary school.
Finally, Government policies and accountability measures are working against a broad and balanced curriculum to meet all pupils’ needs and interests. For example, 61% of secondary schools and 15% of primary schools are now Academies or Free schools and do not have to teach the national curriculum. This means their pupils’ entitlement to D&T education is not guaranteed. Primary schools are judged on pupils’ performance in English and mathematics, which consequently take over 50% of teaching time, compared with 5% or less for D&T. Secondary schools are judged on pupils’ GCSE grades in English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects (English, mathematics, history or geography, science and a language). There is no incentive for pupils to study D&T. Until 2004 D&T was a compulsory GCSE subject, but the loss of statutory status and current accountability measures have resulted in a 50% fall in D&T GCSE entries between 2003 and 2015. This has been further compounded by the recent proposal that no school will be considered as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted from September 2015 unless all pupils study EBacc GCSEs – a further disincentive to study D&T. Consequently D&T is increasingly marginalised in many schools and, in a few, is being cut from the curriculum completely.
A call for change
So, at a time when many other countries, particularly from SE Asia, are looking to the UK to see how we teach D&T – because they see the value in linking design, creativity and innovation to technical knowledge – we are in danger of losing the lead we have held since becoming the first country to introduce D&T for all pupils, from age 5 to 16, with the first National Curriculum in 1989. We also know, with figures from Engineering UK and Nesta, that the UK will need 1.8 million new engineers by 2022 and there will be 1 million new creative jobs by 2030. D&T can help address these shortages – but not if we don’t address the challenges I have described.
How then do we counter this perfect storm of problems? In September the Design and Technology Association launched a campaign, ‘Designed and Made in Britain …?’, to raise awareness of these challenges and to propose actions to address them. The launch, held at the RSA, included a campaign video featuring high profile advocates and supporters of D&T, and further events are planned for later in the year.
In short, we believe the Government must change their accountability measures to include a creative/technical subject for all pupils at Key Stage 4; address D&T teacher shortages through increased bursary incentives to attract the best entrants into ITT; and promote wider understanding of D&T, its contribution to STEM and to career paths in engineering and the creative industries. We also believe employers can play a significant role by helping to highlight D&T’s value to Government departments through their companies and professional institutions; by collaborating in developing real-life and relevant D&T activities and resources; and by helping D&T teachers engage with professional practice through work experience, internships and apprenticeships. The D&T community also has a part to play by ensuring the subject is modern, relevant and fit for the 21st century; by providing CPD that improves and extends subject knowledge; and by taking every opportunity to publicise D&T, and related careers, to parents, school management, governors, and employers.
Unless we can achieve these changes, too many pupils will lose out on a design and technological education which is essential for life in an advanced technological society and too many will miss out on the opportunity to have their interest in engineering careers awoken through practical designing and making activities. There is a lot to lose.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Green, MA, FRSA is Chief Executive at the Design and Technology Association. For more information about the ‘Designed and Made in Britain…?’ campaign, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www. data.org.uk/campaign.