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Can we have our lathes back, please?

Making things is back in fashion, it seems. Nicholas Pyke charts the troubled history of the technology Orders

As everybody knows, technology has had a difficult birth. Indeed it could be argued that it is only this autumn, with the introduction of the new key stage 4 Orders, that it has really been born at all.

The subject has been bedevilled with rewrites and suspensions, assuming five different shapes in six years.

It is only now that, for the first time, all pupils from key stages 1 to 4 are studying the same nationally produced syllabus.

The problems were deep-seated and started even before the first technology orders were published in March 1990: no one, it seemed, knew how to define technology. Not in a way that commanded agreement.

The subject working group under Lady Parkes concluded that it was to do with designing and making useful objects, thereby helping pupils to solve practical problems.

But the final shape of the curriculum orders had no such clarity. After interventions from the Secretary of State and the then National Curriculum Council, teachers ended up with a subject defined as "identifying needs and opportunities"; "generating a design proposal"; "planning and making"; and "evaluating".

There were no detailed programmes of study - a crucial error in the view of many - and the subject became seen as one involving generalised problem-solving with no particular knowledge base. Many schools consequently moved to sell off what appeared to be outdated manufacturing equipment, lathes and so forth.

A range of practical problems immediately emerged. Under pressure from the many different departments clustered around school design blocks, the curriculum planners had tried to include everyone. They produced a synthesis of CDT (craftdesigntechnology), home economics, information technology, business studies and art. All these subjects, it was claimed, were getting at the same thing - technology. In practice, this led to wholly unreasonable demands on narrowly specialised staff.

The uncertainty about defining technology is illustrated by the bewildering list of departmental titles compiled by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson at Brunel University. Departments were calling themselves: "expressive arts and creative design"; "design"; "enterprise"; "department of creativity"; "craft, design and technology" and "material science".

Indeed the subject became a laughing stock as, in the absence of any specified knowledge or programmes of study, "problem-solving" entered the world of the seemingly ludicrous.

Such themes as surviving on a desert island and preparing a charity fair were put forward in all seriousness as suitable technological material. Travelling to school could scarcely have been discounted.

No one was satisfied. The National Curriculum Council was unhappy, as was Her Majesty's Inspectorate. They both produced revisions of the Orders and in 1993 the NCC reasserted the importance of "designing and making good quality products".

Here an already Byzantine tale touched on the absurd as this revision in turn was caught up in the Dearing Review in January 1994. Sir Ron Dearing suspended the technology orders for key stage 4 until 1996 (this autumn), leaving schools teaching one of three different versions to their 15 and 16-year-olds: the new Order (September 1993), the old Order (1989) or the pre-national-curriculum syllabus. As we can tell from this year's GCSE results, and probably next year's, in practice the last option meant taking GCSE home economics, a subject which saw an enormous increase in popularity.

In May 1994 Dearing pronounced, and came up with the following formula. Technology is defined as: "combining designing and making skills with knowledge and understanding in order to design and make products." The subject was to be compulsory at key stage 4, but only to the level of a short course. Information technology was compulsory but not as a stand-alone subject.

Students are now expected to demonstrate: * designing skills; * making skills; * knowledge and understanding of: materials and components, systems and control, structures, products and applications, quality, health and safety.

This seems to command a substantial measure of agreement, but problems remain. The optional position of food in secondary school studies is a source of continuing anxiety to home economics teachers.

Worse still, schools who sold their lathes now want to buy them back as making things is turning out to be important after all.

Which leads on to the general problem of underfunding. A survey by Smithers and Robinson has found that technology departments receive on average only Pounds 5.86 per pupil, leaving overcrowded classes occupying inadequate rooms with no technical back-up. Teachers, they found, are having to beg, borrow and scrounge resources.

All of which seems to suggest that there's plenty of life yet in the great technology saga.

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