Design and technology: past and present

Paul Woodward
1st February 2016 at 15:00

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Design and technology: past and present

"The future is an unknown, but a somewhat predictable unknown. To look to the future we must first look back upon the past. That is where the seeds of the future were planted…." - Albert Einstein

Now I am not one to argue with Einstein and I imagine you are likely to be considering the future of this subject, but have you ever considered its past? If you have it’s your lucky day, so read on as I take you through a brief history of technical education that would eventually become known as Design and Technology. Imagine the first paragraph in black and white…

Early last century, practical education in school was based upon society’s need for a skilled workforce. Girls were expected to take up menial employment or become wives and mothers while boys undertook pre-vocational practical activities. Following the 1944 Education Act, a system of secondary modern and grammar schools became the norm, with practical activities often confined to the secondary modern schools and thereby to pupils of lower ability. Sadly this would become a prevalent attitude to D&T education in some schools for the next 70 years.

The post war curriculum of technical education was inspired by the principles of ‘Educational Sloyd’ which originated in Sweden in the 19th Century. This focused on handicrafts and working in materials such as wood, fabric and metal but there were several incentives introduced to address the growth of technology. In 1967, the Schools Council’s ‘Project Technology’ supported the role of technology in education but it was met with some resistance by many ‘handicraft’ teachers as it advocated ‘project-led’ approaches to tasks, rather than simply project work.

Despite the success of Project Technology it was the Keele Project that caught the imagination of many more ‘craft’ teachers. The pilot study, ‘Education through the Use of Materials’, suggested approaches to craft work that combined the teaching of skills with the stimulation of pupils’ own creative ideas. It advocated a ‘problem-solving’ approach to practical education which would dominate debate in design education for many years.

In the 1970’s, an enquiry by the Royal College of Art concluded that design could only be justified in general education if it was of wider relevance than providing pre-vocational experiences. It also suggested that one of the central values of a design education for all was the acquisition of skills which are of ‘lifelong’ relevance to individuals. Simply put, the creative processes conducted in schools should be transferable to other situations throughout life.

There were attempts at combined subjects such as Craft, Design and Technology but the teaching of separate materials such as Woodwork, Metalwork, and Needlework continued in many schools through the 1980’s. This was to change with the introduction of the first National Curriculum in 1989 when the range of pre-vocational technical subjects became known as Design and Technology. However, the first version of the DT curriculum was ambitious and considered to be insufficiently supported so it was revised and simplified in 1995. The year before that the A* grade was introduced to help distinguish between the top grades. The 2000 revision of the curriculum put more emphasis on industrial production and the role of CAD-CAM as well as modern and smart materials. At the same time, A level courses were split into modules; half of which constituted the new AS level.

In 2005 the curriculum was revised again with further emphasis on sustainability but in the previous year Design and Technology was removed from the list of compulsory subjects at KS4; for the first time in almost 20 years, students were free to choose the subject…or not. This might have resulted in a dramatic drop in student numbers but it remained very popular and in 2010, after maths, English and science, Design and Technology was the most popular subject choice at GCSE.

So far so good for D&T but in that same year the English Baccalaureate was introduced because the number of ‘non-academic’ qualifications taken up to age 16 had risen from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000, with a higher take-up of vocational qualifications by young people from deprived backgrounds. The government argued that qualifications such as D&T didn’t carry real weight for entry to higher education or for getting a job. Despite remaining a popular choice for students, by 2012 it was reported that 14% of schools had withdrawn the subject from the KS4 curriculum.

In 2014 new Progress 8 measures were announced which, after the core and EBacc subjects, leave students with a choice of just 3 ‘open group’ subject options and it is in this group where Design and Technology currently resides. With the new rule that no school will be considered ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted unless 100% of pupils study EBacc GCSE’s, there is sadly even less incentive for schools to promote the subject.

So that brings up to the present where we eagerly wait to see how examination boards will implement Ofqual’s recommendations of a single title, single tier subject with a 50/50 split between practical work and examination. Anything beyond this point would be conjecture but I hope this somewhat ‘sober’ blog has helped give some insight into the subject’s illustrious past. There are many more social, industrial and political factors than I could hope to address but I will leave the future of the subject for you to discuss (and for another blog). In the meantime consider these words from John Moss, Clerk to the Sheffield School Board (1884), which I believe still hold true:

‘The school workshop…should be an integral part of the education system adapted to the requirements of the industrial communities. It should be a means of illustrating scientific principles and of applying in practice theories which of themselves, too often appear to the pupils as useless dry bones.’

Amen to that.   


Paul Woodward has been a teacher of DT for 22 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of Faculty, qualified to MA level and an examiner and moderator of Resistant Materials for the AQA.