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Back to a worn-out drawing board

A sea-change is needed in attitudes to design and technology for the sake of the nation's future, says John Eggleston

In 1989 the educational world became inescapably aware of design and technology. Almost overnight it became a compulsory subject of the national curriculum, imposed by law on all children from five to 16.

The effect was traumatic - primary and secondary schools balked at the cultural transformation required, many teachers, both specialist and general, were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the requirements. Those who did succeed were often vilified by press and television with accusations of Mickey Mouse activities and Blue Peter projects.

Five years of confusion followed with four major revisions of the design and technology Order, some not even reaching the statute book. Formal testing was tried and abandoned after millions were spent on research. Since Sir Ron Dearing's review the requirements at key stages 1 and 2 have been dramatically reduced and assessment made almost invisible. Most significant of all, at the crucial key stage 4 schools may now opt to offer shortened courses - or, in Wales, none at all.

Design and technology teachers, faced by these final reductions have, for the most part, sadly accepted the diminution of the high hopes of 1989. Exhausted by recurring change, under-resourcing and constant criticism many have thankfully taken a lower profile. With the strong and effective support of their new D and T association, they are rebuilding their subject methodically, often with impressive results.

But elsewhere the subject seems to be returning to its old invisibility. Many industrialists seem oblivious to its ability to enhance employability and are once again asking it to deliver traditional craft skills - even, in one recent example, using imperial rather than metric measurements.

University admissions tutors want more students for technological and applied-science subjects, yet still often accord low recognition to technology A-level results and, even more categorically, to technologically-oriented general national vocational qualifications.

School counsellors, aided by the Dearing reforms, still railroad many able pupils away from technologically-oriented subjects to the academic mainstream, neatly perpetuating the divide which handicapped British industry for well over a century. As Carrie Peacher reports in a recent issue of the British Educational Research Journal it would not be surprising if many design and technology teachers abandoned hope and retreated back into their old, low-status, low-visibility role.

There is an urgent need to once again recognise the importance of design and technology and its teachers and urgent measures are necessary. First and foremost there is a desperate need for enhanced resources. Although a number of specially-designated schools have adequate, even impressive, resource bases and some other schools have occasionally enhanced resourcing, it is still common for many pupils in both secondary and primary schools to be undertaking work with microchips on the cracked and gnarled workbenches that have served years of woodworking and metalworking.

Even more urgent is the need for a major increase in in-service, on-site support, to increase teachers' confidence in the new tasks that face them. Few technology teachers have adequate experience in electronics, hydraulics and pneumatics, particularly in tackling problems with pupils' use of equipment that occur in every classroom.

A second major area is the urgent need to make design and technology more interesting. Many boards' exam syllabuses require long drawn-out design processes where every stage has to be set out in painstaking, detailed graphics reducing the design process to a snail's pace and turn the actual making into a delayed and sometimes incomplete process.

The boredom and frustration of some able pupils diminishes the design and technology experience and exacerbates the intellectual polarisation. This seems particularly true of the reaction of girls. As a recent report by the Engineering Council notes, technology needs to be taught in a much more exciting and inspiring way if there is to be a real breakthrough in gender equality in technology careers.

Another area which demands urgent attention is the low esteem in which other subject staff hold design and technology. It is vital to challenge this and eliminate implicit or explicit low evaluation of the subject. A key indication is the status of the teachers themselves. It is still possible to count the number of ex-design and technology teachers who have become headteachers on the fingers of two hands. Heads must now take up the fight and encourage parity of esteem for all their teachers.

Unless design and technology is effectively resourced, its exams properly recognised and its students given access to continuing education and high-status employment it is unlikely to sustain even in its present national curriculum role. The erosion of the subject is already taking place in many schools. The time left to save it and all that has been achieved in the past decade is limited and the need for action is urgent.

The new second edition of Professor John Eggleston's Teaching Design and Technology has just been published by Open University Press

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