How best do you raise a subject's profile, increase its appeal and lay old ghosts to rest? Gareth Stevens, head of design at Tideway School in Newhaven, East Sussex, has succeeded in attacking the problem on all three fronts. At the end of last term he and his colleagues staged "Design for Need", an exhibition of design and technology GCSE coursework produced by Year 11 students.
The idea, says Mr Stevens, was to raise the status of a subject that had become stigmatised, especially in the eyes of parents. "DT suffers from the perception that it is no more than woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. This exhibition aimed to raise people's awareness of the range of work, " he says, citing IT skills used in an analytical investigation as an example.
Design and technology is a compulsory GCSE subject at Tideway. That in itself is hardly noteworthy. But it's the school's approach to the "major project" part of the course that is striking, with emphasis placed on "Design for Need" - particularly design for disability.
While the national curriculum has no requirement to focus on disability, Tideway followed this route to make the design problems real and to fit in with the school's belief that design is about meeting human needs and improving people's lives.
"We could easily administer a course in which pupils deal with a familiar design situation," says Gareth Stevens. "The whole notion of Design for Need is to take students into an unfamiliar context." He counters any suggestion the approach is blinkered by emphasising the challenge as well as the importance of designing for a specific need.
Headteacher Ken Saxby shares this view. "The subject should be compulsory and done the way it's delivered here," he says, while stressing that the door is always open to students who might wish to pursue a project outside the Design for Need remit. "You have to find an attractive stimulus for a large number of young people," he continues, pointing out that disability is an area in which they have an interest and a conscience.
He is also anxious to dispel old myths, particularly that design is a "manufacturing thing" for children who are good with their hands, but less able at reading or writing.
In support of this view, Mr Stevens cites the example of one student who didn't want to take the subject. "She couldn't draw, and she hated making things. But the areas in which she excelled were those that got her a good grade - the ability to organise a long-term project, IT, research skills and being methodical."
Year 11 students Hannah Lumsden and Gemma Vaughan freely admit they were reluctant DT students. Now, course completed, both confess they enjoyed it, although they found it hard work.
As the market is already saturated with gadgets for the elderly and disabled, they decided to improve on an existing idea. Gemma concentrated on making a kettle tipper while Hannah designed a dressing aid - taping up her hands to simulate the effects of arthritis.
She found retailers keen to help, and by paying a small deposit she was able to take products away to test. "Some gadgets were awful," she says, and Gemma adds that her kettle tipper was better than some of those commercially available.
Their work took them into old people's homes and hospitals, and brought them into contact with experts in the field of disability - which they say helped them gain confidence in dealing with people. It all builds on Mr Stevens's belief that the benefits extend beyond a good exam grade. "It's the transferable skills students develop - dealing with the severely disabled, organising work, IT skills."
The variety of exhibits in the exhibition proves that the school's innovative approach has stimulated students' talents - one gadget for picking up and retrieving objects is simply called a "grabber". What gives it its ingenuity is the light built into it. Another invention, a colour-based board game for visually handicapped people, uses varied textures for the range of colours.
Hannah enthuses: "We were well-taught. We couldn't have done any better. " Which, from a student who once had no desire to take the subject at all, is pretty good going.