A job for the boys?

Paul Woodward
3rd June 2016 at 15:08

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, A job for the boys?

Thank you DFE, after many years of open mornings and parents evenings I had finally nailed the perfect answer to those questions about the viability of girls studying D&T. I had my pitch all ready to persuade girls that they had just as good a chance of passing D&T as their male counterparts but back in the old days the choice was even simpler; girls did home economics, cookery and textiles while boys undertook more constructional and ‘manly’ pursuits in technical education. There were no parents evenings either!

I grew up in slightly more modern times but, even when I started teaching, this sexist attitude was still pervasive. Perhaps the specialist subjects just appeal to different genders but I had hoped that D&T had evolved enough for the subject to appeal to both boys and girls equally. My subject of choice is (was?) resistant materials but only because I didn’t like the ‘forced’ use of card and packaging for product design with early examples of project work when it was introduced only putting me off further. However, I took a less ‘traditional’ approach to the projects and effectively designed products without the packaging while still meeting the requirements of the syllabus. As a result I devised a course that met the requirements of RMT, avoided the use of packaging and voila…more girls started to opt for the subject. Not only that, they often did significantly better than their male counterparts.

This was not unique to my department however, with girls currently outperforming boys in all existing design and technology subjects nationally even though more boys choose to study the subject than girls. There also remains a gender imbalance in the subject with more girls choosing to study food technology and textiles technology while boys typically choose RMT, engineering, system and electronics. Graphics is perhaps the one area which attracts equal numbers as it offers many of the visual elements of a subject such as art without the need to use tools and machinery which still seems to be intimidating for many girls.

But everything is about to change as food technology is now a separate subject under food and nutrition leaving design and technology as a single title without discreet specialisms where textiles did not figure so prominently in preliminary material; certainly not enough to retain those who may have originally chosen textiles as an option. Under the new single title subject, this would indicate that the results for the new D&T might well suffer especially if girls really did better than boys across the full suite of D&T specialisms.

Will this new title have connotations of the more technical subjects that used to deter girls from opting for GCSE study and, perhaps more importantly, will it attract good numbers at all? That we shall have to wait and see but my own experiences of teaching both sexes has provided some observations which I will share, and I make no apologies for generalising.

Traditionally, boys were given vocational training which involved the use of tools and machinery. Over the years it was somehow expected that boys would be more receptive to this type of work and even to this day I still hear comments that allude to the idea that boys like ‘knocking bits of wood together with nails’. I still shudder when I hear that. Conversely, the fairer sex is considered more dainty and delicate (yeah, right); probably from traditionally being drawn into subject areas that would prepare them for being mothers and wives (not my words). Cookery, haberdashery and the likes were the subjects for girls back in the day but sadly things haven’t changed that much and these are still the subjects that attract girls despite the fact that many prominent fashion designers and chefs, are male!

Personally, I have always found that girls do better in D&T than boys. When it was woodwork and metalwork, the boys flexed their collective muscles and probably did better than girls due to greater confidence in the use of tools and machinery but, as the subject became more design orientated it seems to appeal to girl’s sense of organisation and presentation. They are generally more thoughtful of the whole process and possess more patience which is why their research and development work is usually better (remember, I am generalising). As the use of large noisy machinery and complex crafting tools has diminished in the current qualifications, so girls have found they can do the job well…and get results. That would certainly concur with the national statistics.

All this is historical now but I do wonder what the single title and the ‘blanket’ coverage of materials will do for recruiting girls into the subject. At the same time, will those boys who simply like ‘knocking together bits of wood’ be deterred from studying given the breadth (if not depth) of knowledge required, not to mention the increased importance of the written examination? I will leave that for you to discuss but hopefully, it will be a GCSE (and A Level) that will appeal to boys and girls equally and put an end to the ‘boys are better than girls are better than boys…’ debate once and for all.


Paul has taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty. He is currently taking a short break from DT to teach photography and media studies.

His Subject Genius blog is shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.