Times are certainly changing for the subject we know and love as design and technology. The numbers of teachers training in D&T have dropped significantly, as have the numbers taking the subject at GCSE. Almost half of schools have already dropped the subject, according to a 2017 survey by the Association of School and College Leaders, because of the pressure to succeed in core and EBacc subjects.
If you are easily offended by articles that suggest D&T is not as important as you may think then now would be a good time to stop reading, but remember that I remain a staunch supporter of the subject. However, I am also happy to challenge my own and others’ perceptions, so I would like to look at what aspects of the subject we believe make it unique. What exactly is design and technology, and do we need it in the curriculum? I will get my hard hat ready for the flak but bear with me as I play devil's advocate.
Design is about solving problems; advancing from one situation to another. A key aspect of the design process is analysing a context and a subsequent investigation. We need to do some research to "solve these problems" by looking at the needs of our client or our target market. OK, research is often seen as an academic pursuit covered by many other subjects and market research and the needs of the consumer are often covered by business studies. Almost every subject has some aspect of analysis and research.
Materials and processes could be addressed through the science curriculum, and with the D&T GCSE exam having evolved over the years to now require 15 per cent of the content to address maths and science (25 per cent at A level), those subjects already have a proportion of the subject covered. Global economies and scales of production are covered through business studies, drawing and modelling through art and design, and planning, evaluation and communication are covered in many other subject areas.
How important is design and technology?
Right, well at least we have that "making a project" bit that is unique to our subject. Maybe? But assuming that we are preparing young minds for the world they will grow into rather than the ones we grew up from, they will be more reliant on technology and mass production than handicraft and hand-making skills. Just look how few marks are now awarded to this aspect of the course at GCSE and A level.
Again, we find that business, enterprise and computer studies, with a little tweaking, might be able to prepare students better for a modern future based on the use of design and technology. Technology, yes, I forgot about that bit. Surely that's an aspect of the world that our subject truly has ownership of? Sorry to say this but robotics and automation, while addressed in D&T, are also covered elsewhere (or could be with a little tweaking of the curriculum content). Computer technology is used in most subjects nowadays, with computer science fast becoming a very relevant subject for future industries.
CAD, now that's something that no other subject really addresses. Oh, and wood, metal, plastic and other material and making skills. But sadly, traditional hand-making skills rarely make for lucrative careers to sell to ambitious students. Even CAD, once considered a higher-level job, is now a task for "jockeys" with the skills considered relatively easy to learn and ultimately devalued. Nevertheless, we could take those skills from the subject, with the portfolio itself, and reallocate them to 3D routes through art and design, which it would seem some schools are already considering.
Taking the above speculative comments into consideration, how do you feel about design and technology? Is it still unique in the curriculum or is it awkwardly straddling many other subjects capable of delivering what D&T intended to, but without the health and safety concerns and budget-chewing consumable materials?
Now I am a mischievous little blogger who likes to ask how and why a lot rather than just offering supportive (if somewhat duplicitous) reassurance that we are all doing fine and that attitudes towards D&T are all just terribly unfair. What you have read above is very likely to be the thought process of many leaders of education that has brought design and technology to where it is today. The illustration that accompanies this blog may be whimsical, but it’s also what is happening with Stem, with many schools delivering aspects of the subject through maths and science while ignoring the T and E.
How will schools deliver these vital skills?
Only by challenging others', and our own, perceptions of design and technology can we make the changes necessary to move forward and restore it (or an improved version of it) to its rightful place in a balanced curriculum. However, I do fear the subject (as we currently know it) will eventually disappear, and that may not be such a bad thing. Perhaps it is something best combined with business, enterprise and computer science while "handicraft", drawing and practical elements are delivered more effectively by another creative subject such as art and design. Perhaps it needs to disappear, so it can be truly appreciated and then return stronger than ever.
I only say this as the curriculum will inevitably be further condensed and a wide range of skill-based subjects just won't be able to survive the onslaught of the current educational reforms. How a school will choose to distribute the range of skills currently covered by D&T will depend very much on the skill set of the staff, the resources of the school, the preferences of the students and, perhaps more influentially, the vision of school leaders. What we do need, though, are those skills to be taught; otherwise we won’t have a design, engineering and manufacturing industry in this country at all.
Perhaps we should focus our attention on those last few points before really deciding where design and technology education should head in the future – if, in fact, it has a future in its current form. Sadly, those influential leaders must think that products grow on trees or are designed by fairies, as they seem resolute in their ambitions to deter talented young minds from pursuing creative careers.
Paul Woodward has taught 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.