Fitting in the box

Paul Woodward
18th November 2016 at 14:34

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Fitting in the box

Several decades of teaching followed by a chance to step out of the profession and look holistically and historically at the teaching of D&T and the subject matter itself has been a real eye opening experience this last year, and the blogs I have lovingly crafted each week have also been an opportunity to reflect on the teaching of this (once) fine subject.

The latter part of my teaching career, if in fact it is over, involved some supply work which, additional to my work as an examiner and moderator, gave me an insight into the workings of a variety of schools other than those I had spent extended periods of time in as a Head of Department or Faculty. I was also lucky enough to have worked a great deal within the independent sector in day, private and boarding schools so I do feel that I left the profession at a time of great (and not so great) change but also when I had the most clarity of vision to look at the bigger picture.

Sadly, what I saw was a subject being diminished in many schools as a result of the pressure to offer EBacc subjects, implement Progress 8 and attain an outstanding Ofsted rating which now will very much depend on those previous two requirements being met. Throughout this period I saw D&T struggle to achieve success, some poor teaching and disappointing results in terms of project work and examination results. I witnessed departments being faced with, at best, reductions in staff and budgets and, at worse, closure. What I also saw was the hard work of some truly inspirational people with a genuine passion for the subject and a few with the foresight to see just how relevant and important this subject was to the future. What concerned me the most in all this, especially after stepping out of a rural boarding school, was the sheer amount of data being produced, apparently scrutinised and the subsequent actions taken as a result of that data. The words 4 levels of progress will be forever etched into my psyche.

Now, I have always took pride in my ability to connect with students and build a meaningful rapport, taking the time to discuss dreams and aspirations, personal goals and the such like but what I saw towards the end of my time in the classroom, or rather the workshop, was this growing desire to 'fit students into a box'. They stopped being Johnny in 11B whose brother did A-level product design a few years ago, who played rugby for the school, who plays guitar in the school band and wants to design motor cars for a career...and he's really good at rendering. Though I wanted that to be how I knew him, he became a red box on a spreadsheet currently part of the 34% currently only on 2 levels of progress. Conversations with Johnny soon moved away from developing his design skills in order to clear a path towards his chosen career to how best to secure a C grade or better. The magic and wonder I saw in his eyes as a Year 7 student gave way to a growing bitterness for the subject as I asked for yet another page of development sketches for a project he was already making or a working drawing I knew he wouldn't actually need to produce an outcome.

A desire to see students develop into talented designers became a need to attain 70% A-C, to ensure that 4 levels of progress had been met and imminently that a positive attainment 8 score is achieved. A whole range of criteria that neither reflected the creative or technical abilities of the students nor enabled them to become more proficient and confident designers became more important than actually teaching the skills necessary to make genuine progress in the subject. At times it felt that all those individuals with personalities (not all good either) simply became coloured boxes on a spreadsheet all adding to an overall subject result which in turn contributed to a departmental result, to a faculty school county national average etc.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the importance of assessment and monitoring, the need for keeping paperwork in order and the like; it's always been like that. But what I do fondly recall is a time when professional judgement was valued over laborious statistics and data. Perhaps it was because spreadsheets were less prevalent in the classroom during the 90's or is it just that someone, somewhere in an office decided that they were the way forward?

As a subject often disregarded by other more 'academic' departments as 'woodwork and craft' I wouldn't want to give them any more ammunition with which to berate design and technology by removing the need for due care and diligence in marking and assessment. However, I remain steadfast in my belief that this should really be one subject that is judged by the quality of its creative output and the skills and experiences gained by its students rather than their potential contribution to a laborious and endless stream of, what is quite frankly, useless data.



Paul taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a creative arts faculty as well as teaching art, ICT, photography and media studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

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