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'If the government wants more Dysons, D&T must be taken more seriously'

Richard Green, chief executive of the Design and Technology Association, writes: 

Design and Technology (D&T) education is facing a difficult and uncertain future. Steady decline in the number of pupils choosing to study the subject at GCSE and A-level has been matched by a chronic shortfall in the numbers applying for D&T teacher training, filling just 48 per cent of available places for the school year 2013/14.

Chronically undervalued, and widely misunderstood, issues with the image of D&T have been exacerbated by the application of stringent accountability measures in secondary schools which threaten to relegate D&T to also-ran status by forcing school to focus on traditional academic subjects.

How different things looked 25 years ago, when the UK became the first nation to enshrine D&T as a subject for all primary and secondary school pupils. The objective was to stimulate originality, enterprise, practical capability in designing and making and the adaptability needed to cope with a rapidly changing society. Fourteen years into the 21st century these principles have never been more valid. So why is it that so many schools are struggling to teach the subject at all?

The government talks about the importance of “Stem” (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects if the UK is to be competitive in the global market place. But almost always Stem means science and maths, while technology and engineering get ignored. Subjects like physics and maths are undoubtedly cornerstone subjects, but D&T is the only subject in the curriculum which provides students with the “T” and the “E” in Stem.

It enables students to combine their mathematical and scientific knowledge and skills with creative and technical capability to design and make systems, services and products which meet the needs of users. In doing this they also develop skills in problem solving, teamwork, communication and other soft-skills which are stressed time and again by academics, captains of industry and government, as essential to industry.

Yet one look at the raft of current Stem initiatives is enough to show how little attention is given to D&T – the one subject equipped to fully nurture these attributes.

D&T’s capacity to bridge the gap between academic rigour and creative flair has not gone unnoticed by countries looking to challenge Britain’s position as a global creative and precision engineering powerhouse.

Educationalists and business leaders from nations including China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are flocking to the UK to learn how we teach children to make creative and innovative decisions in our schools. How ironic then that in the UK, we face the very real danger that design and technology could disappear from the curriculum in many schools over the next five years unless something is done to prevent it.

Time and again we have found ourselves fighting for a place at the curriculum table. Over the last two years we have successfully campaigned to keep D&T as a national curriculum subject, convinced the government to completely rewrite its first draft for the new curriculum, and then worked with the design and engineering industries to advise the Department for Education (DfE) on what the subject content should be, ensuring it was more challenging and more closely aligned with real-world applications – something we know harnesses children’s natural enthusiasm for designing and making.

It’s a good start, but the hard work is far from over. While the best schools are already meeting these requirements, many more need support to meet the challenges of the new curriculum. We also need the government to recognise and promote D&T’s value and to make schools see it as an essential component of a 21st century curriculum. We believe fostering closer alignment between D&T teachers and real businesses also has a crucial role to play in achieving these aims.

Our own Skills Gap Programme has been shaped to increase the design and technical skills of teachers through partnerships with businesses. These partnerships are keeping design and technology education up-to-date by helping both new and experienced teachers gain and develop the knowledge and skills they need to excel in teaching the most dynamic and vibrant subject on the curriculum.

We’ve also just launched our Great British Make Off competition for schools, with the aim of helping teachers provide children with real-world challenges and highlighting the various careers available to those with D&T qualifications. We’ve partnered with some of the biggest names in the UK manufacturing and design world – including Brompton and Seymour Powell – to promote D&T and demonstrate its importance within a host of design disciplines.

We’re doing our part, but D&T needs strong backing from the government if all schools are to inspire and effectively prepare the next generation of Jonathan Ives and James Dysons. If the government is serious about closing the skills gap, D&T must be part of the solution.

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