One title to rule them all

Paul Woodward
27th May 2016 at 16:47

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, One title to rule them all

I have chosen to interrupt my planned blog as this week has seen the first wave of design and technology syllabi emerge from awarding bodies. Having waited so long for details of the new GCSE courses, particularly from my preferred exam board (you will have to guess), it seemed more appropriate to address the reformed subject this week.

I have to be honest, I actually welcomed the early news of a reformed GCSE in design and technology but perhaps not for the reasons you might expect. Admittedly the reduction of coursework from 60% to 50% brings it more in line with the assessment for A-level study and, for a practical subject, I would like to see it remain at 60% but I can live with that. No, it was the news that project work would no longer be limited to a particular material group in the design and production of an artefact and that said artefact has to be a prototype product rather than offering the option of a series of often unrelated portfolio tasks. The need for more maths and science content also lent it a certain ‘credibility’ it was lacking in some approaches to the subject.

My own specialism is resistant materials and, coming from a traditional furniture design background, that seemed like a natural move at the time. Having taught product design at A-level the details of a GCSE in the subject during the last reforms was a bit of a letdown and I chose not to introduce it to the department but only because I didn’t like the ‘forced’ use of card and packaging. Early examples of project work when it was introduced only put me off further. However, in teaching RMT, I took a less ‘traditional’ approach to the projects and effectively designed products without the packaging while still meeting the requirements of the syllabus. I made it a requirement that students could justify their projects for sale in a retail outlet, that they looked at costings and scales of production while considering alternative materials and production methods. Things that I am sure all good departments do in most areas of D&T. What I didn’t do was insist on the use of timber and metal nor the use of traditional jointing techniques and finishes if they were not relevant to the project. As much as I loathe KD fittings on quality furniture, it is possible to design projects that can collapse or be dismantled and constructed in innovative ways. I always tried to make sure that no two projects looked alike; quite a challenge over a 20 year period.

What this meant is that I was able to casually refer to the course in marketing blurb etc. as product design. I made it clear to the students what their certificate would say on it but also what they would be studying and in doing that I justified my approach. This also meant a great deal of diversity and project work that didn’t always stick to the use of the usual materials (or outcomes) for RMT. However, students designed chairs but also the upholstery for them yet didn’t always receive the credit deserved for the textile work. The same went for electronics and systems that enhanced the projects but couldn’t always receive the credit for elements that may have fallen under ‘other’ subject titles. It just didn’t seem fair.

All that has now changed and with a single subject title and no limitation to use a particular material I am hopeful that the new GCSE and A-levels will allow students to design and make projects in the materials that best suit their target market, rather being limited to showing evidence of skills in one material group. I was worried that, with such a wide range of materials and technologies to study, the theory may be watered down to multiple choice and join up the boxes type answers. Having seen the first draft of the examination material, I am glad to say my fears were somewhat unfounded but I still have reservations of how this breadth (if not depth) of materials knowledge will be addressed comprehensively in the classroom.

I won’t go into detail here about the draft syllabi released so far as they are available for everyone to read and judge for themselves but I have to say I am very excited about the possibilities the reformed subject could offer. We have all waited patiently for changes in a subject that hasn’t really evolved as rapidly as the design and technology it aimed to address and I feel that removing limits on material groups and focusing on a client/market led iterative design process with a prototype outcome is a great move and one I have been wanting to see introduced for a long time. No longer do I have to subvert my approach to design projects to ensure they fit into a ‘pigeonhole’ title. The design process is free to develop within the constraints of the project and its target purpose or market and the use of digital technology is encouraged…woohoo! I couldn’t be happier, well, if only it weren’t for that 30-40 hour time limit…



Paul has taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a Creative Arts Faculty. He is currently taking a short break from DT to teach photography and media studies.

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