It's too hard!
Keep it clean folks, this isn’t a Carry On film but I can hear the discussion in numerous classrooms across the land; a bit like Superman’s telepathic ability but without the cape….or the underpants outside my jeans. ‘It used to be so easy’ they cry; ‘kids won’t take it now!’ they say. ‘There’s too much maths and science’, they mutter, ‘we haven’t got the staff for that!’, ‘it’s too hard’….and so on.
Things are finally changing in the world of Design and Technology education and that’s a jolly good thing in my opinion but there is a flip side to these mostly joyous celebrations at the first sight of the new syllabi.
As I repeatedly say, those two areas; design and technology are synonymous with this generation but they evolve, adapt and develop faster than the classroom subjects that aim to address them. As a result this subject (not in all schools mind you) has dropped so far behind that it is almost difficult to take it seriously at times and colleagues, parents and even students referring to D&T as woodwork and metalwork doesn’t help; nor does the constant stream of bird houses and coffee tables! Teachers who have an eye on the future and eagerly awaited the reforms are no doubt already working out what amazing projects they can introduce in between doing cartwheels, but what of the ‘old guard’ who still pervade the subject. Are they willing or able to adapt or destined to become redundant? For those who have the retirement countdown on their computers and phones, will this be the final push they need to leave the profession?
I speak as someone in the middle of these two generations of design and technology where my learning experiences were in those old dusty woodwork rooms. That was a time before CAD and CAM where you had to be Chippendale incarnate to achieve an A grade in O Level CDT but I also trained and taught in a time where design and technology were relevant nouns rather than official sounding verbs. I therefore sit comfortably in both camps, but what of those who prefer, or have been allowed, to keep the subject in it’s almost ‘museum like’ state. If you don’t believe me, I have visited such centres and they weren’t in Beamish either! Kes sprang to mind and I half expected to see Brian Glover chasing Casper around the changing room with a plimsoll.
There is also another concern that could affect us all and not just the more, ahem, ‘old fashioned’ departments. I believe that we have all been complicit to some extent in creating the culture for lower ability students to study in design and technology. I know we all have ambition for D&T to succeed and would all like the really bright and creative students but have any of us sat back and watched a department close down because we refused to accept much lower ability students? Of course not, and somewhere down the line the subject gained a reputation for being ‘easy to pass’ or ‘good for knocking two bits of wood together’. Perhaps that was the reason it survived so long and it was an increased need for academic credibility, not just the EBacc, which has more recently relegated it to the lower ranks. A quick glance at an RM paper from a few years ago highlights just how easy some questions are. I had several students struggle over the question ‘what is the source of wood?’ and try to concoct something related to cellulose or photosynthesis only to discover the answer was simply ‘Tree’...is that really a GCSE quality question? If we have indeed bred that culture then an already diminishing subject may well lose even more ‘potential’ candidates who simply can’t meet the design needs of the subject or struggle with the decreased marks for practical work and the increased maths and science demands of the examination; often weak areas for some students that make D&T more appealing in the first place.
Perhaps this subject is no longer meant to evolve gradually but would benefit from a total overhaul and fresh lick of paint (replace both of those with resources and staff if that seems more relevant). I wonder if the ‘old ways’ can really adapt in order to make the reformed subject a success and if the changes are too late to save a subject already being squeezed out of the curriculum… technical awards aside. I certainly hope not and I remain enthusiastic about the changes to the subject but, in between the party poppers and streamers, it might be worth taking a sober moment to spare a thought for the departments and schools who will struggle in light of the changes for one reason or another. Whether or not that constitutes some sort of natural selection is down to your personal point of view, but the simple fact is that change can be painful and sadly some will be lost in the transition, unless of course you were simply counting down the days to retirement anyway.
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.