A few years ago, back when D&T was compulsory at GCSE, I recall art teachers getting a little worried as fewer and fewer students opted to study their subject. After all, they were already being "forced" to do a practical subject and it was mostly those with a passion for the subject, or who just didn’t want to sit through long exams in the summer, who also opted for an art subject.
However, all that seems to be changing, particularly considering recent events. It started with D&T being made non-compulsory, which saw unwilling students fleeing from the subject even though it did not have a massive effect on overall numbers. The next noticeable change was in the introduction of the new GCSE and A levels, of which art was endorsed a year earlier than D&T. Again, I don’t recall that having a monumental shift on numbers either. Bear in mind I am looking at this in terms of creative subjects, not considering the often-devastating effects of the EBacc and Progress 8 (that is another discussion entirely).
The last straw for many teachers was probably the Technical Awards failing to be accredited. For many, the new GCSE, or the old one for that matter, was simply too challenging for the students they had. I will leave you to discuss if that’s because expectations for the subject have become less challenging over time, but many teachers were now looking for a route that allowed an element of design and a practical course but one without a great deal of materials and processes and, more importantly, without a written exam. So, other than the single title D&T, what GCSE choices do they really have?
Wait, did someone say art and design offered a 3D route, and graphic communication? So, it’s not all life drawing and clay pots…and no examination? Tell me more!
Now I have worked in the creative arts for most of my career, mixing between (to name a few) D&T, art, music and media studies, so I can see how different subjects can deliver a creative experience. My current timetable is primarily art, with a smattering of D&T, but I am finding myself increasingly drawn towards the art side (cue Darth Vader heavy breathing).
I was surprised to discover that the product design course post-16 offered in my new school is a 3D art and design route, yet the design folders and outcomes look just like those from A level but without being so "wordy" or technical, and there is no written exam. That was my first surprise. Having sat through a BTEC presentation for art and design a few days ago, I started thinking, "Wow, this is getting more and more like the creative content of D&T, just without the manufacturing, materials and processes-based theory." The student in the exemplar work shown had even used a video game (an arty one, mind) as inspiration, combining it with the study of Harry Beck’s underground map, then using CAD to develop 3D models as part of the coursework.
Alarm bells really going off now. Videogames, no exam, animation, 3D CAD with virtual reality, no exam, digital work, drawing, no expensive machinery, painting, NO EXAM, modelling, less health and safety risk, iconic designers, no ex…well, you get the idea…and that’s just the 3D route which has additional options for architecture, interiors, graphics and digital art, etc.
Bottom line is, this is the sort of course I would probably have chosen over D&T back in the day if such a thing existed, and I’m sure I would be shunned by many D&T teachers just for saying that, but not everyone is creative in the "construction, engineering or making" sense. Some people want to design, to express their creativity and explore a range of 2D and 3D media in a more craft-based environment; aspects that art and design can quite easily support.
Here is a subject that potentially offers all my favourite bits of what D&T used to, that requires students to pitch an idea to a client through visual communication but one that massages a different side of the creative brain and lets students explore their creativity without time constraint as they craft their work. Looking at my own limited resources for delivering engineering-based subjects, I began to imagine these work areas as impressive multi-material 3D workshops for art and design. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I struggled to see how I could genuinely argue for a D&T route over the art and design options available.
Fear not, for I am not another casualty of the exodus to art and, for the foreseeable future, D&T remains my subject of choice. It's a subject that I am passionate about promoting and encouraging, but admittedly I did find myself slipping over into art and design there for a moment. What worries me is how enticing it all looks, how much cheaper it could be to run and how easily it might be to slip over there again. I fear many teachers desperate to maintain a provision of creative subjects in their departments with limited resources and budgets, and desperate to remain employed in a creative subject, might eventually feel the same.
Paul has taught and led Design and Technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the Head of Creative Arts at a large independent school in the North of England.