Has the dust settled on the new design and technology GCSE?

Paul Woodward
16th July 2019 at 14:36

I have been writing this blog long enough now to remember when we were only speculating about the new design and technology syllabus. Back in December 2015, we were still teaching the old legacy spec with another two years before even thinking about starting the new specs. After years of teaching D&T on the old spec, I’m sure most of us had become accustomed to delivering and assessing the coursework material and the theory for the examination complete with prep sheets for that year’s design theme.

Well, that time has come and gone; by this stage, most of us who are teaching the new GCSE and A level will have seen the first cohort of GCSE and A level entered – we now await the results of the examination. We may have had experience of an AS entry already but, thanks to the subject being delayed, we are heading into unknown territory for the first time. And, because no awarding organisation has had a live set of cohorts yet, we are all in the same boat.  So, with a first set of entries done, has the dust finally settled on the new D&T specifications?

I recall the first year of teaching the new spec: social media and the forums were swamped with a deluge of questions about what we could and couldn’t do, what was permissible, acceptable or advisable. It was fair to say that there was a great deal of uncertainty. It's also fair to say there was a dearth of supporting materials from AOs at the time we all started the course (some would argue there still is).

This seemed to go on for a few weeks/months but then it went quiet, probably as we digested what little information there was and the advice from colleagues and examination boards. However, it all started again when the first contexts were released last June resulting in questions ranging from the time spent on them and support that could be given to what AO to go with based on the contexts they published.

Again, it's fair to say that there was a great deal of confusion and still not enough support. Quite a few months later, the first exemplars from AOs rolled out but most were greeted with a degree of scepticism and negativity. Some commented that they looked like they were just rehashed folders from the old spec (hint: many of them were), while some seemed like a lot of work to reach that standard and yet no one would commit to saying what those standards represented and how they might relate to the new 9-1 levels which we, as a subject, are still yet to see awarded. Again, we were all feeling in the dark for reference points to grab on to. It wasn’t a great start to a new syllabus.

And here we are now, almost two years later. We have all been through the experience, but are we any wiser? And can any of us say, hand on heart, that we now get it and could happily continue into next year confident that we are doing it right? I can’t speak for everyone, but I get a distinct impression that this is not the case. Let's look at a few things that are still a little vague:

  • How many pages should the portfolio be (especially digital) and how long should be spent on the NEA?
  • If I put the work up at an end of year exhibition, can I share images on social media?
  • Do I have to give students all three contexts or can I pick one for them?
  • What constitutes a prototype, do I have to make a final product, does it have to be finished, can it be a scale model, does it have to work?

These are just a few questions still being asked almost two years after starting the NEA for the first time and, while it is perfectly normal to need some time to readjust to a new syllabus, you would hope that these would have been addressed clearly and concisely before we start with a new cohort in June.

Now one thing that I have noticed is that some of these questions often seem to be very specific to the AO syllabus being followed and during those two years certain AO’s seemed to change their stance on a few of the issues that were first raised. Take for instance the time and page limits. My failing memory vaguely recalls these being agreed by Ofqual but now it would seem that they are not all the same with one AO removing such limitations altogether. Others are requiring the use of sketchbooks to support a smaller presentation of work, much like an Art and Design course would, while others insist on a fixed size portfolio of work.

This is before we even begin to look at the theory, the examination and the expectancies of covering maths and science. The title asked if the dust has finally settled on the new D&T specification and I don’t really think it has, or that it will in the immediate future. The problem with dust and having it settle is to avoid any disruption, movement or agitation that might stir it all up again. Here, I believe, is where the problem will be as there will be subtle amendments and changing advice for the foreseeable future and all at a time where the subject struggles to attract and retain teaching talent and where its place in a balanced curriculum is very much under threat. I really hope it does settle down soon, so we can all get back to the job of delivering a quality design and technology education without unnecessary ambiguity adding to the already difficult job.

Paul Woodward is an experienced head of creative arts and design and technology, currently working as a designer, author and D&T consultant.