Design and technology used to be the new kid on the block. Everyone wanted to hang around with D&T as it had cool gadgets and was so much more fun than the other kids. It was so creative and so different from those stuffy old subjects where you did lots of writing and diagrams. It strutted around showing off its snazzy new clothes and generally just looked great. It couldn’t do anything wrong.
But then something happened…its cool gadgets weren’t new, its clothes just weren’t quite as trendy, and people gradually stopped wanting to hang around with it anymore. Worse still, it got pointed out by the adults that it wouldn’t be good for your reputation to be seen hanging around with it. The geeks were much cooler now; they did maths and science and the other EBacc subjects that the adults told us were much more important than cool gadgets, snazzy clothes and being arty. These were the subjects that would help you to become doctors and lawyers and other jobs that would make lots of money. They wouldn’t be cool, creative or stylish...but they might make you rich.
And so D&T went from being that cool, creative and stylish kid on the block to the little brother you had to take on a first date to the cinema. On weekends, he goes around to art’s house, but they don’t really want to hang around with him as he isn’t cool anymore – they sometimes let him join in as long as he brings along his gadgets. PE let him play only because he fixes their broken sports equipment. Other kids keep friendly with him to get their shoes and bags fixed from time to time.
In short, D&T is now that lonely looking lad that everyone knows but that no one wants to spend time with. He is still there but you wonder if he would be missed at all and Mr EBacc wouldn’t really mind if he did leave because, well, those once snazzy clothes and gadgets still cost a lot of money; money that would be better spent helping make lots of lawyers, doctors and businessmen.
All of this is a long way of saying that D&T really does seem to have lost its identity of late. Gone are the range of specialisms that allowed focus on a particular area and in its place is a single title subject that needs to know a little bit about everything. I’m reminded of that saying: "Jack of all trades, master of none" – there really is little hope of studying any area in great depth with this new syllabus…unless you can manage to find another day in the week. The non-examination assessment (NEA) is also reminiscent of the emperor’s new clothes: it’s simply what good design always has been but crammed into a time frame that will see centres that were used to producing high-quality outcomes struggle to do so with this new syllabus. I am still trying to work out how anyone, never mind a 15-year-old student, can achieve the highest level in the time allowed.
It’s a subject that wants to be as academically rigorous as an EBacc core subject, yet wants to be as student-friendly and practical as it used to be. It proudly declares how demanding it is, while also trying to entice students in with the promise of making stuff, working with CAD and CAM and drawing rather than writing but then it pulls away the reassuring practical rug from underneath them, crams in endless theory and makes them sit a two-hour examination at the end. Now, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing, after all, D&T had become something of a joke in some circles over the decades where I have no doubt it is still referred to as "woodwork" or, just as confusing, by its original specialisms such as resistant materials (RM) or graphics.
The new GCSE syllabus promised to change all that, but it took away all the material ‘specialisms’ and provided us with a single title GCSE that, on paper at least, should provide much more freedom rather than limitations but, in doing so, I feel it has done the opposite. We now cover all the theory that was in five or six specialisms to ensure that students have the best chance of answering 20 multiple choice questions. How is that conducive to learning and good practice? They then get to choose questions to answer based on one or more materials groups they have studied in more detail. This, at least, is more relevant to the work they have covered in class. That last part at least covers a wider range of design-based materials but still there is the emphasis on, rather than a practical use of mathematics and science. I wonder, do those subjects have a 15 per cent mandatory reference to design and technology? No, didn’t think so.
Design and technology no longer has those separate and sometimes confusing names (what is a resistant material?) so it’s the perfect opportunity for it to establish its own new and shiny identity. This really should be the time when it becomes relevant and vital but, for a myriad of reasons, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Hopefully, as new curriculums are being proposed and we see a shortage of students qualified to support industry and manufacture, that will change, and D&T will once again establish itself as an important subject in a modern curriculum but also one that has a unique and appealing identity.
Paul Woodward is an experienced head of creative arts and design and technology, currently working as a designer, author and D&T consultant