Key stage 4 'too often ignored'

In a growing number of primary schools design and technology at key stages 1 and 2 is enjoying amazing success. In places where the subject did not exist before, children are solving design problems, devising mechanisms and circuits and creating artefacts in ways that astonish old-style specialist teachers and inspire primary teachers.

The subject is also strong and secure at key stage 3, with almost all secondary schools responding fully to the statutory requirements, and the new regime of teacher assessment seen as fair and workable. OFSTED reports suggest progress that is at least satisfactory and often above.

But design and technology at key stage 4 is an altogether different scene.Secondary schools are desperate to concentrate their resources and efforts on prestigious GCSE results and subsequent A-levels - to win the ratings war and satisfy parents. The candidate for reduction is, all too often, design and technology. Although there is plenty of evidence of the impressive work that can occur at KS4, the "low status" tag is still widespread. "It does not lead anywhere," was the recent comment of one school career adviser and, for evidence, he produced the latest recruitment literature of the Institute of Electrical Engineers recommending aspiring members to study maths and science - but not design and technology.

Add to this the heavy cost of offering design and technology effectively at KS4 - it is arguably the most expensive subject - in cash-strapped schools and the motivation to downsize or even eliminate design and technology for some or even most pupils in Years 10 and 11 becomes compellingly attractive.

The process is well advanced. In Wales there are no impediments, provision of design and technology at KS4 is wholly optional. In English schools the short course option is available, widely used and interpreted minimally in many cases - particularly for the higher-flying pupils.

But there are many English schools where pupils do not even experience a short course in design and technology at this key stage. Some schools have virtually no design and technology or only an intermittent experience at KS4 which in no realistic way satisfies the Order.

This does not go unnoticed. It is regularly noted in OFSTED reports - but rectifying it is another matter. OFSTED has hundreds of objections concerning the adequacy of provision at key stage 4 but little hope of tackling the backlog in the short term. Faced with arguably even more pressing issues and indifference from schools and parents, the problem is likely to remain and even intensify.

Sadly, we are confronted with a situation in which the enthusiasm of key stages 1 and 2 design and technology is reinforced at key stage 3 but fades at key stage 4, particularly for many of the most able children. Our education system is still unable - or unwilling - to turn children's design and technology imagination and creativity into a continuing programme of education and career opportunity. All too often we are still extinguishing this nationally needed asset in the doubtful interests of tradition and only allowing it to resurface, if at all, at a far later stage in careers.

Professor John Eggleston is a member of the Centre for Research in Primary Technology led by Professor Clare Benson at the University of Central England, Birmingham

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