What is design and technology doing wrong?

Paul Woodward
28th September 2018 at 09:04

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, What is design and technology doing wrong?

There's no point in beating around the bush leading up to the following statement (it has been discussed to death), but design and technology as a class-based subject is struggling in most UK schools. Not just with recruitment and retention of both staff and students, but also an identity crisis and perceptions that it just isn’t relevant. Even the drive to promote Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths), which once used to provide us with a T and E upon which to hang our subject, seems to be letting the subject slip quietly into obscurity.

To quote the Department for Education's A-level results-day statement from August 2018: “We define Stem subjects as: biology; chemistry; computing; mathematics (including statistics); further mathematics; and physics.” Good to know that acronyms no longer need to resemble the words they reference, then…

It isn’t just about content or delivery, though – we need to look at external circumstances that are having an adverse effect on the subject. EBacc and Progress 8 measures are clearly a key factor; regulator Ofsted's suggestion that a school cannot be outstanding unless the EBacc is fully supported further endangers support for the subject – it leaves a good number of subjects vying for the remaining option slots (presuming there are any).

Then we need to factor in the dwindling budgets in schools, which is again down to the government. If I were a school leader struggling with my budget and staffing, I have no doubt it would be tempting to look to a non-EBacc subject that was expensive to run, required a deal of investment to maintain, and which has its fair share of health and safety issues. It's even easier to target such a subject for removal from the curriculum altogether if it is not particularly inspiring or successful, and when you can’t staff it adequately either…

Stuck in the 1970s

This brings me to an aspect that may be the major contributing factor in the subject's diminishing popularity: is the subject really any good in the UK at the moment?

Now, put your torches and pitchforks down. I have visited schools where the subject is astonishingly good, but at the other end of the scale, ones in which it hasn't moved on much from the 1970s. Sadly, it's this disparity in the quality of the material produced and, inevitably, the quality of education that is likely to be a key factor in how the subject is perceived.

Here is a subject that has as much relevance to the future as any other in the curriculum, if not more so. Yet, in stark contrast, it's also the one for which some people refuse to let go of its links to the past! As a result, perceptions of the taught subject are based on what is seen or experienced in a centre or a region. If that is predominantly "box-based" woodwork projects, then, of course, it will be considered "outdated" or irrelevant; meanwhile, those centres where innovation and creativity is embraced, along with new technologies, will be perceived as being more relevant. This (and, to some extent, budgets and attitudes towards creative arts) is the only plausible explanation for why the subject is paradoxically both thriving and dying at the same time.

New subject specification 

We now have a fresh start. Not just a new, single title subject to concentrate our efforts on, but a different approach to designing; one that takes, or rather reinforces, an iterative approach to producing prototypes, all from an open context that should let young designers identify their own possibilities and outcomes.

There are no real material limitations, so no need to concentrate on joinery, metalwork, electronics or whatever specialism is still referred to in some schemes of work. While this may initially mean a drop in the level of craftsmanship and technical skills evidenced in projects, it should result in students being better prepared for A levels or BTECs, which would provide the foundations and skills needed to progress to higher education or to take up a position in the modern design industry.

Despite this fresh lick of paint, it remains a hard sell to practically minded students when there is a two-hour examination to test what is primarily recall of facts about materials and processes. There is no genuine problem-solving being tested in those 120 minutes, nor real creative thought (you already had several weeks sketching out ideas on a theme in the legacy syllabus and there is no practical design-based question in the new one). Neither is there any real practical application of knowledge; that is all done through the non-examination assessments. But if your skills lie in designing solutions to problems and having the skills to realise that design as a prototype, your eventual GCSE level may not reflect that on results day.

Still, to finish on a positive note, perceptions of the subject can, and should, be changed. As centres adapt to the new spec I am hopeful of seeing more innovative solutions emerging; the type that win design and engineering awards and show that the students of today are indeed the creative engineers of the future. If that doesn’t happen, then people’s perceptions of the subject are unlikely to change, and the subject could eventually disappear altogether. We really can’t let that happen, whatever we may think of the subject in its current form.  

Paul Woodward has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools, as well as working as a musician, artist, designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England