If you spend enough time on forums or social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are generally two attitudes regarding D&T education; one that promotes innovation in design and another that promotes more practical skills and craf- based work.
Of course, it's more complicated than that – with many supporting a mix of both – but with the increasingly reduced contact time with students, reduced NEA time and reduced budgets, it's hard to address both approaches in a single subject, especially one that is already being asked to cover so much varied and diverse material. For schools with a large enough cohort to split candidates between technical awards and GCSE, it shouldn't pose a problem but for those forced to choose between one or the other, I do fear that Post-16 choices may be limited for their students.
There is also the argument of what we are preparing students for in their D&T education. Are we trying to shape the designers of the future through an academic route or encouraging those with practical skills to explore them and learn a trade once they leave school? Do we simply split them depending on their academic ability rather than their ambitions?
It always made sense to me to prepare students for the best they could possibly achieve, so if they were capable of undertaking higher level studies in design, I felt obliged to push them to achieve results that would allow them to go on to A level then degree, etc. If a student had less "academic" potential but had a passion for those elements of the subject that could be nurtured towards a trade, such as joinery or carpentry, then I fully supported that. The thing is, at one time of day I could do both, so even the more academic were given a good grounding in the craft and technical elements of the subject; they just did well with the theoretical aspects of the subject and aspired to study the subject beyond GCSE.
With the advent of the new GCSE D&T and its increased focus on iterative design and prototyping, many teachers are having to choose between a GCSE with a more "theoretical" focus or a technical award with a bias towards the practical elements. Throw in the 3D art and design route and it becomes even more divisive...and don't get me started on how risky running a certain technical award could be.
Limiting pupils' potential
If the Post-16 Skills Plan comes into effect (which is likely), students will have to choose an academic or vocational route after their GCSE studies but, by following a technical award route are we limiting their potential to take a more academic route into design and technology-based careers? Where does that leave students post-16, and are we effectively putting an end to their design studies by choosing a technical award or equivalent? After all, many students flourish and grow creatively once they are free from the limitations of secondary education, and, really, how academically mature are they at 14 years old?
It might not seem that important, especially if your school doesn't have a post-16 facility, and, given the pressure of getting results and maintaining numbers, your choices may already be limited. You could argue that there are vocational routes post-16, but will they veer students even further away from prospective design careers? For the past year, I worked alongside adults who followed a trade to become joiners and fitters and others who trained to a higher level in design or engineering. The attitudes towards them varied greatly with designers being treated, for the most part, with professional respect while those on the factory floor were treated more like manual labourers. Their pay and career potential were noticeably different, with few tradesmen being promoted while the designer could easily earn double or triple that of a tradesman in the same organisation – which vindicates my own choice to encourage a design route wherever possible over a more practical route. In a nutshell, if a student has the potential for either route, then surely we should encourage them to take the one with the greatest career potential rather than accepting that learning a trade is a perfectly admirable ambition.
It's a tricky time for D&T, with many difficult decisions to be made, and I only wish I had the answers to solve the problems many of us face – if, in fact, they can be solved in this current educational climate.
What I do believe is that post-16 is where students are best equipped to make this decision and that, wherever possible, we should maintain a GCSE that will still give them a choice. Sadly, with the offer of less academically demanding technical awards and 3D routes within art, I fear that D&T, as a unique platform to prepare students for life in design, engineering and other creative disciplines, will continue to be under threat and inevitably decline. Given the current climate of education, it's really not difficult to imagine a time in the not too distant future when it disappears from schools altogether despite our best efforts.
Paul is an experienced teacher, examiner, moderator and consultant in design and technology who has also worked in industry as a designer, artist and musician. He is currently head of creative arts in a successful Yorkshire boarding school