If you are reading this, you are probably involved in the teaching of design and technology in some way and therefore aware of the fact that the old concept of a "major project" has been replaced with the NEA or Non-Examination Assessment. This is not just a chance to rename it but also to address the approach to practical work and how it is assessed. There always were restrictions and rules but were these always implemented as expected and assessed fairly? More importantly, will the new NEA be assessed fairly and who exactly will be policing it?
Let’s look at what has changed, if anything at all, from the old system. There was always a design process and an outcome. There was always a suggestion of how long should be spent on the "project" and how many "pages" a portfolio should be. There was even a suggestion that exceeding these would somehow be "penalised" but in practice they rarely were. If we are being totally honest, iterative design isn’t new and has always been good design practice. Were the outcomes really anything other than "prototypes"? Some days it feels very much like "the emperor’s new clothes", which makes me wonder if those who have reacted with anger and confusion felt the same about the old syllabus. But I digress, what I want to address is exactly how we will police the NEA element of the new syllabus – if, in fact, we can…or should.
Let’s take the page count or PowerPoint slides if going digital. One AO says students will be "self-penalising" if they exceed the recommended page count. Now, let’s not get started on how many slides equates to 20 A3 pages, but some schools, mainly independent, used to enter very high-quality work that spanned many pages; I have seen well over 100 A3 pages in a folder before now!
Then there is the 35-40 hours suggested time spent on the folder, but who is monitoring this as it doesn’t require the time to be formally logged? What is to stop those same schools spending hundreds of hours each year on the NEA? How can a moderator, who will no longer visit, be able to prove definitively that the students weren’t just amazing at maximising their time? Will schools struggling to get 40 hours access time and limited outcomes become the "standard" by which others are judged? I can’t see those schools where creativity is supported and excels being very happy with that.
Creating a level playing field
What then of the quality of "outcomes"? Once marked for innovation, craftsmanship and other making skills, it’s all about making a range of outcomes and prototype(s). If the time limit is adhered to then these are likely to be unfinished and potentially "ugly" outcomes that might still meet all the assessment criteria. But what if schools continue to produce beautifully made "one-offs" and cleverly support them with a range of model iterations?
This is the reason I have argued for deadlines to be the limitation rather than working time or portfolio pages. Yes, you can condense the work down to a reasonable amount to "stay under the radar", but if that selection was made from hundreds of pages produced over hundreds of hours, what have you really achieved by imposing these restrictions?
Put two teachers in a room and one may produce considerably more than another, so how can we say for sure that a student has spent more time than they "should" on their project? And is it fair to penalise them by comparing them with the "standard expectation"?
Even if we stick to what is produced in observed time in class, how can we know that the student hasn’t spent all night drawing ideas that they can simply "recreate" in lesson time without the need for thinking time? Have they practised CAD modelling at home, so they whip out a full design in 20 minutes in class? On the other hand, if they have used their initiative to maximise their time this well, should that even be penalised?
The bottom line here is that no one has yet submitted an NEA outcome and, therefore, no one has moderated a live one. Even the moderator initial training will have to be based on "exemplar" work and they are likely to be as confused as anyone else and rely on someone deciding that "this" is what we expect a level 6 to look like. No matter what experience they have, they will never have marked the wide range of outcomes we can expect this year.
Which brings us back to the question of monitoring and who exactly is policing this to ensure it is all fair across the board. It really will come down to a teacher’s professionalism but, if you discover that your colleagues in other schools are not doing it and, even more infuriating, are not being penalised in any way, it’s going to be very difficult to justify sticking to the rules.
Paul Woodward is an experienced head of creative arts and design and technology, currently working as a freelance designer, author and D&T consultant